PA Superior Court: Defendant Must Be Permitted To Rebut Commonwealth's 404(b) Prior Bad Acts Evidence

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Yocolano, holding that the defendant's conviction must be reversed because the trial court improperly prevented the defendant from rebutting the Commonwealth's 404(b) Prior Bad Acts evidence. Under the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence, prosecutors may file a motion asking the trial court to allow them to introduce evidence of "prior bad acts" or crimes committed by a defendant. This type of evidence can be extremely prejudicial to the defendant, and the Superior Court has now ruled that the defense must be permitted to call witnesses to rebut this highly prejudicial testimony when such witnesses are available. 

Commonwealth v. Yocolano

In Yocolano, the defendant was charged with Aggravated Assault and various sexual assault charges against his paramour, who is referred to in the opinion as A.A. The testimony established that Mr. Yocolano and A.A. were in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship dating back to 2010 and had a child together. Throughout their relationship, there were multiple alleged instances of domestic violence. The police were called on several occasions. For example, in 2010, the police responded to a call that Mr. Yocolano had an altercation with A.A. where he chased her and caused damage to A.A.’s father’s house. In 2012, the police were called on several occasions including: an incident where police were called after Mr. Yocolano threatened A.A. with a machete; an argument between A.A. and Mr. Yocolano; A.A. calling the police on Mr. Yocolano after expressing suicidal thoughts after an argument between the two; A.A. filing a police report against Mr. Yocolano after he threatened and choked her; and Mr. Yocolano punching A.A. in the head and threatening to kill her and her family. In October of 2012, A.A. obtained a Protection from Abuse “PFA” against Mr. Yocolano. This incident led to the charges in question, and Mr. Yocolano was subsequently arrested.

Both before and during the trial, the Commonwealth filed multiple 404(b) motions in Mr. Yocolano’s case. Specifically, the Commonwealth sought to introduce evidence from the 2010 incident and three incidents from 2012. The prosecutors also sought to introduce two PFA’s against Mr. Yocolano filed by women other than A.A. on the fourth day of trial, and the trial court permitted the prosecution to introduce all of the prior bad acts evidence. 

What is a 404(b) Prior Bad Acts Motion?  

In most cases, a prosecutor may only use evidence against a defendant relating to the crimes alleged in the complaint. This means that prosecutors cannot simply tell a judge or jury that the defendant is a criminal or has a criminal record. A 404(b) Motion, commonly referred to as a “Prior Bad Acts Motion,” allows the Commonwealth to introduce prior acts against a defendant in the present criminal case against him under certain limited circumstances. A 404(b) motion cannot be used to prove a person’s character (i.e. that because a defendant did something bad once in their life, they are a bad person and thus did this crime), but rather it can be used to show motive, opportunity, intent, absence of mistake, knowledge, lack of accident, preparation, and plan. In domestic violence cases, 404(b) motions are common, and appellate courts have held that in some cases, they may be used to show “the continual nature of abuse and to show the defendant’s motive, malice, intent and ill-will toward the victim.” Commonwealth v. Ivy, 146 A.3d 241, 251 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016). Accordingly, prosecutors routinely argue that prior convictions or allegations of violence between the defendant and the complainant provided the defendant with the motive for the criminal behavior alleged in the current case or would show that the injuries could not have been caused as the result of an accident. 

Defending Against 404(b) Motions 

Obviously, prosecutors gain a tremendous advantage when they are permitted to inform a judge or jury of a defendant's prior record. The judge or jury become much less likely to be sympathetic and far more likely to believe that if the defendant committed a crime before, he or she must have committed a crime again. However, it is possible in many cases to successfully oppose these motions or limit the damage. In some cases, it may be possible to show a lack of similarity between the conduct or that the prejudicial effect would substantially outweigh any probative value. It also may be possible to successfully argue that the prior conviction does not establish any of the requirements which the Commonwealth must show. In other cases, it may be possible to call eyewitness from the other incidents to show that the other allegations are also false. Therefore, if you are charged with a crime and a prosecutor is seeking to introduce prior bad acts against you, it is imperative that you have a skilled attorney who can litigate a motion to prevent these prior bad acts from being introduced into trial or attempt to limit the damage by thoroughly investigating the allegations. In Mr. Yocolano’s case, his attorney was unsuccessful in opposing the three incidents from 2012, the incident from 2010, and the prior PFA’s which were filed by other women. 

Although the defense could not keep this highly prejudicial evidence out, the defense had thoroughly investigated the case and located a number of witnesses which were ready to rebut the prior bad act allegations. During the trial, the defense attempted to introduce evidence that would rebut the 2010 incident. However, the trial court precluded the defense from introducing evidence to rebut the claim, holding that it was “collateral.” Specifically, the trial court only allowed the defendant to introduce evidence that would rebut the allegations from December 6, 2012 (the day on which the crimes for which he was on trial allegedly took place) and was not allowed to introduce any evidence that would rebut the “prior bad acts” that the trial court had found admissible. Given all of this prejudicial testimony from other incidents, the defendant was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 18-36 years of incarceration.

Yocolano appealed, and the Superior Court reversed the conviction. The Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in preventing Mr. Yocolano from introducing evidence that would rebut these claims. The Superior Court cited an important Pennsylvania Supreme Court case called Commonwealth v. Ballard which held that “where the evidence proposed goes to the impeachment of the testimony of his opponent’s witness, it is admissible as a matter of right.” The Superior Court properly recognized that Mr. Yocolano should have been allowed to “test the veracity of A.A.’s version of events.” 

Protection from Abuse Orders and Rule 404(b)

The Superior Court also held that the trial court abused its discretion when it permitted the two PFA’s from different women to be introduced. Rule 404(b)(3) states that a prosecutor must provide “reasonable notice” if they seek to introduce these prior bad acts. Reasonable notice typically means that the prosecution must inform the defense in writing and in advance of the intent to introduce prior bad acts evidence. There are exceptions which allow the prosecution to introduce prior bad acts during trial where the prosecution can show good cause for the failure to provide prior notice. 

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for prosecutors to provide the defense with previously undisclosed evidence on the day of trial. Most judges will either permit the defendant to continue the case or preclude the last-minute evidence from being introduced. However, in this case, the Commonwealth provided the unrelated Protection from Abuse Orders against Mr. Yocolono on the fourth day of trial. The Commonwealth stated that the reason for the late discovery was because the prosecutor had just looked in the computer system mid-trial and happened to find the records. 

The Superior Court rejected the Commonwealth's argument that this constituted good cause. The Court held that the Commonwealth’s excuse did “not qualify as a valid legal excuse.”  Further, the Superior Court was skeptical that these third-party PFA’s would have met the substantive requirements of 404(b). In Mr. Yocolono’s case, the trial court failed to analyze the facts of the two other PFA’s and identify “a close factual nexus sufficient to demonstrative the connective relevance of the third-party PFAs to the crimes in question.” Based on all of these errors, the Superior Court ordered that the sentence be vacated and that the defendant receive a new trial. 

Facing Criminal Charges? We Can Help 

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta, Esq. and Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta, Esq. and Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Domestic violence and other assault cases are often more complicated than they would seem. In cases where the prosecution seeks to introduce prior bad acts evidence, the defense must thoroughly investigate the case and strongly oppose these 404(b) motions both on the law and on the facts. If you are facing criminal charges, you need an attorney who has the knowledge and expertise to defend your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.