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Trahan v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

November 22, 2019

Stephen TRAHAN, Appellant,
STATE of Florida, Appellee.

Page 362

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Suwannee County. David W. Fina, Judge.

         Andy Thomas, Public Defender, and Kevin Steiger, Assistant Public Defender, Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, and Tabitha Rae Herrera, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, for Appellee.


          Sharrit, Michael S., Associate Judge.

          The Appellant, Stephen Trahan, challenges his burglary conviction, and contends the trial court improperly admitted evidence of a "collateral crime" or "other bad act." We agree, and accordingly reverse and remand for a new trial.

Page 363

          On the morning of August 16, 2017, the victim in this case (hereinafter "Victim") discovered that his truck while parked in his driveway had been broken into and ransacked. He quickly determined his backpack, left in the vehicle overnight, had been taken. A few days later, the Victim fortuitously saw the Appellant walking through his neighborhood wearing what he believed to be his stolen backpack. He confronted the Appellant and demanded he relinquish the backpack. The police were summoned, and an investigation ultimately led to the Appellant’s apprehension and burglary charges. The Victim’s asserted ownership of the backpack became the dispositive fact issue and if proven would be the link between Appellant and the vehicle burglary. During the trial, the State introduced evidence that upon Appellant’s arrest, a checkbook belonging to a third party, entirely unconnected to the charged crime, was found inside the backpack.

         Evidence of other crimes or conduct is inadmissible where its only purpose is to show bad character or propensity to commit bad acts. Williams v. State, 110 So.2d 654, 663 (Fla. 1959); § 90.404(2)(a), Fla. Stat. (2017) (codifying Williams rule). Evidence of other crimes or bad acts may however, be admitted only if relevant to prove a material issue such as motive, opportunity intent or identity. Williams, 110 So.2d at 659.

         Although while presenting their case at trial, the prosecutor and State witness carefully avoided making the overt assertion that Appellant had stolen the checkbook, they might just as well have. The Williams rule is not limited to the exclusion of explicit crimes. Rather, the rule more broadly precludes evidence of other crimes, wrongs or misdeeds. § 90.404(2)(a), Fla. Stat. When the jury was told that in the course of a criminal investigation, the Appellant, an accused thief, was found to be in possession of a checkbook belonging to somebody else, the inescapable implication was that he stole it, and was a person prone to theft.

         It is well established that gratuitous evidence of collateral conduct which may bear adversely on a defendant’s character should be excluded. This Court has consistently held possession of even potentially incriminating items, not relevant to the charged crime, to be inadmissible. See e.g., McCuin v. State, 198 So.3d 1066, 1068 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016) (fact that car burglar happened to be in possession of wallet belonging to person unrelated to charged crime constituted inadmissible collateral crime evidence); Jackson v. State, 570 So.2d 1388, 1389 (Fla. 1st DCA 1990) (in cocaine possession prosecution, evidence of cash found with defendant, improperly invited conjecture that he was engaged in other bad acts or criminal conduct); Slocum v. State, 219 So.3d 1014, 1015 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017) (in possession of cocaine trial, error to allow evidence regarding cash found in defendant’s bedroom where not relevant to any issue); Richardson v. State, 528 So.2d 981, 982 (Fla. 1st DCA 1988) (evidence of matchbox containing cocaine residue found on defendant, but unrelated to charged crime - possession and sale of cocaine - was improperly admitted). Here, as in each of the cases above, the natural inference to be drawn from Appellant’s unexplained possession of somebody else’s checkbook is that he is involved in other illicit activity and is therefore probably guilty of the charged crime.

         If Appellant being in possession of somebody else’s checkbook was probative of any material issue, then the evidence would have been relevant and properly admitted. Evidence tending to prove or disprove a material fact is relevant and is admissible. § § 90.401, 90.402 Fla. Stat. Here, the fact that Appellant was incidentally

Page 364

in possession of a complete stranger’s checkbook held no probative value to the jury trying to discern ownership of the backpack. The checkbook had no inherent nexus to the Appellant nor his burglary victim (nor to anybody or anything associated with either of them). Furthermore, the rightful owner of the checkbook has no interest or claim on the backpack, nor any connection whatsoever, to the charged crime. Likewise, the checkbook was not a personalized accessory or identifying feature of the backpack’s owner. Contrary to the State’s contention, its presence makes it neither more likely nor less likely that either the Appellant or Victim is ...

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