So you’re charged with a crime and are gearing up for a jury trial.  Do you have a criminal past? Did you know that the government may be able to use evidence of your criminal past against you?  In Minnesota this is commonly referred to as Spreigl Evidence, found under Minnesota Rule of Evidence 404.

What is Spreigl Evidence?

In short, Spreigl Evidence is evidence of other crimes or bad acts, other than those related to the current case.  Rule 404 generally states that evidence of a defendant’s prior crimes or bad acts cannot be used to suggest that he/she is likely to have committed the current offense based on his/her bad character.  However, the Rule goes on to state that this evidence can be used as proof of the defendant’s motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident, in regards to the current offense.  This is Spreigl Evidence.

Admissibility Requirements at Trial

In a criminal case, Spreigl Evidence cannot be used against a defendant at trial unless:

  1. the government notifies the defendant before trial of its intent to use the evidence;
  2. the government clearly indicates what the evidence will be offered to prove;
  3. the government proves that the defendant was involved in the previous crime or bad act by clear and convincing evidence;
  4. the evidence is relevant to the government’s case; and
  5. the probative value of the evidence is not outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice to the defendant.  If the comparison between probative value and potential for unfair prejudice is a close call, the evidence should be excluded.

In addressing these five requirements, the court will also factor in the government’s need for the evidence.  If the government has a particularly strong case against a defendant, causing this type of evidence to seem cumulative, then the court may exclude it from trial.

Exceptions to Spreigl Evidence Rules

There are a number of recognized exceptions to the general requirements for Spreigl Evidence admissibility.  The exceptions apply, in particular to defendant’s charged with domestic assault, sexual assault, rape, and related sex crimes.  In these instances, the defendant’s other crimes or bad acts are admissible against the defendant at trial regardless of whether or not they meet the admissibility requirements.  The two particular exceptions in these instances are the Domestic Abuse exception and the Relationship Evidence exception.

Domestic Abuse Exception

Under this exception, evidence of other crimes or bad acts are admissible, without applying the five-step analysis above, if the past conduct:

  1. involved some sort of domestic abuse;
  2. is similar to the conduct currently alleged against the defendant; and
  3. involved the current victim or any household or family member.

the term “household or family member” is a broad term that applies not only to any person related by blood or marriage, but could also include a girlfriend or a person living/staying with you.  In order to exclude this type of evidence from use at trial the defendant must demonstrate that the probative value (usefulness) of the evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice to him/her.  As you can imagine it is much harder to exclude this type of evidence than it is ordinary Spreigl Evidence.

Relationship Evidence Exception

This exception is much more broad than the domestic abuse exception.  Evidence under this exception does not involve conduct that rises to the level of domestic abuse and does not have to involve a household or family member.  As the name implies, evidence of the prior relationship between a defendant and victim of the crime is admissible to demonstrate the history of the relationship between the accused and victim and to place the offense in proper context.  Again, the above-five-step analysis is inapplicable.  The defendant must demonstrate that the probative value (usefulness) of the evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice to him/her for the evidence to be excluded.

You Need An Experience Attorney

Minnesota courts have expressed repeated concern over the problems associated with this type of evidence.  Even with the five-step admission requirement, the distinction between admissible and inadmissible uses are sometimes confused, misapplied or just disappear from appellate court decisions.  This evidence presents an extremely dangerous risk that a defendant’s past acts of misconduct will not only unfairly influence the jury, but also that the jury will convict him/her in the instant case as punishment for the past misconduct.  Rule 404 seeks to protect against both of these types of uses.  This is especially in cases involving domestic assaults and sex crimes.  An experienced attorney can help you navigate this complex and often confusion area of the law.

Facing a criminal trial is one of the most stressful times in a person’s life – you need reliable legal representation from a criminal defense attorney with experience.  Call Sieben & Cotter at 651-455-1555 to arrange your free and comprehensive consultation, or send a request for more information.

The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Sieben & Cotter, PLLC, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.