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Rape Shield Law: Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When It Precluded Defendant From Cross-Examining A Victim’s Past Sexual Conduct, Inappropriate Attire Or Provocative Pictures On Myspace During a Prosecution For A Sex Offense


criminal appeals attorney, rape shield law, preclude Defendant from Cross-examining victim's past sexual conduct

People v. Halter

19 N.Y.3d 1046 2012

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: October 23, 2012

Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi, Esq., Criminal Appeals Attorney

Demonstrating Witness Bias On Cross-Examination: Court Held That Defendant’s Line Of Inquiry Into Victim’s Past Sexual Conduct Did Not Establish Motivation To Fabricate Charges Against Him.

Issue: Whether the trial court abused its discretion and deprived defendant of a fair trial when it invoked the Rape Shield Law and prohibited Defendant from cross-examining his daughter about her alleged sexual behavior with a 16-year old boy, her inappropriate attire and her pictures on MySpace in order to establish her motivation to fabricate the charges against him.

Summary: Defendant called Police to locate his oldest troublesome daughter. Police located and picked her up at the home of a 16-year old boy. Defendant (father) and the daughter got into a heated argument and the daughter informed her mother that her father had sexually abused her. At Defendant’s bench trial, both daughters described their incidents of sexual abuse. On cross-examination, the older daughter admitted that she often argued with her father about boys, her behavior and her attire. Defendant corroborated the friction between himself and his daughter and stated that he often discussed sending her to the Villa, a special school, if she did not change her ways. Defendant was convicted of sexual abuse in the first degree, rape in the second degree, criminal sexual act in the second degree and endangering the welfare of a child. The Appellate Division affirmed and the Court of Appeals granted Defendant leave to appeal.

See Also: Warrantless Searches: There Must Be Exigent Circumstances To Justify A Forced Warrantless Entry Into A Home

On appeal, Defendant argues that he was denied a fair trial because the trial court’s evidentiary rulings prevented him from adequately establishing his older daughter’s motive to fabricate the charges. The Court of Appeals held that the evidence fell within the ambit of the Rape Shield Law, which generally prohibits the evidence of a victim’s sexual conduct in a prosecution for a sex offense under Penal Law Article 130 and the Rape Shield Law under CPL 60.42 The Court of Appeals held that such evidence rarely elicits testimony relevant to the issues of the victim’s consent on credibility. Rather, it serves only to harass the alleged victim and confuse the jurors. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.

Holding:  The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in invoking the Rape Shield Law to prohibit Defendant from cross-examining his daughter about her alleged sexual conduct.

The Rape Shield Law prohibits evidence of a victim’s sexual conduct in a prosecution for a sex offense under Penal Law article 130 and CPL §60.42 because such evidence rarely elicits testimony relevant to the issues of the victim’s consent on credibility but serves only to harass the alleged victim and confuse the jurors.

Facts:  Defendant had a contentious relationship with his oldest daughter. On one occasion, Defendant called the Police to locate the daughter when she never returned home at night. The Police picked up the daughter at the home of a 16-year old boy. Defendant and the daughter had a heated phone conversation after she was picked up. When the daughter ended the phone call, she informed her mother that her father had sexually abused her. The younger daughter later made a similar revelation, leading to Defendant’s arrest.

At Defendant’s bench trial, both daughters described their incidents of sexual abuse in detail. On cross-examination, the older daughter admitted that she often argued with her father about boys, her behavior and her attire. During Defendant’s testimony, he corroborated the friction between him and his oldest daughter to adequately establish her motive to fabricate the charges. Defendant was convicted as charged of sexual abuse in the first degree, rape in the second degree, criminal sexual act in the second-degree and endangering the welfare of a child. The Appellate Division affirmed and the Court of Appeals granted Defendant leave to appeal.

On appeal, Defendant argues that the trial judge erred in precluding 1) cross examination of the older daughter regarding the sexual nature of her relationship with the 16-year old boy; 2) cross –examination about her sexual provocative postings and photos on her MySpace account; and 3) evidence of her attitude and tendency to wear what Defendant considered to be inappropriate. Defendant claims that this evidence was essential to explaining the discord between himself and his daughter and that its exclusion did not allow him to present a complete explanation of his defense. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in precluding evidence regarding the purportedly sexual nature of the daughter because that evidence fell within the ambit of the Rape Shield Law, which generally prohibits evidence of a victim’s sexual conduct in a prosecution for a sex offense.

Legal Analysis:  The Defendant was allowed to describe his proposed line of inquiry and its asserted relevance to his claim that his daughter had a motive to fabricate testimony against him. However, Defendant focused solely on his daughter’s alleged sexual behavior with a 16-year old boy, her provocative comments and pictures on MySpace and her tendency to wear what Defendant considered to be inappropriate clothing for her age. On appeal, Defendant claims that his evidence was essential to explain the increasing discord between himself and his daughter and that its exclusion prevented him from presenting a complete explanation of his defense.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in precluding evidence of the daughter’s sexual relationship with the 16-year old boy because the evidence fell within the ambit of the Rape Shield Law, which prohibits evidence of a victim’s sexual conduct in a prosecution for a sex offense under Penal Law article 130 CPL 60.42. The Court held that such evidence rarely elicits testimony relevant to the issues of the victim’s consent on credibility, but serves only to harass the alleged victim and confuse the jurors People v. Scott, 16 N.Y.3d 589, 594, 925 N.Y.S.2d 384, 949 N.E.2d 475 2011.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in disallowing this line of inquiry. CPL 60.42(5) vests the trial court with discretion to consider the admission of such evidence in the interests of the justice. The trial court complied with the two-part Rape Shield Law procedure outlined in People v. Williams, 81 N.Y.2d 303, 598 N.Y.22d 167, 614 N.E.2d 730 1993.

First, the trial court allowed the Defendant to describe his proposed line of inquiry as to whether a sexual relationship existed between the older daughter and the 16-year old boy, as well as, the asserted relevance to the defense; to show that the older daughter’s motive to fabricate arose from her desire to continue her relationship with the boy from a statuary rape charge.

Second, after having understood Defendant’s argument, the court declined the admission of the proposed evidence, explaining that the Defendant could certainly ask about her running away from home as a motive etc., but that the “sex part” would be excluded because of its propensity to harass the daughter.

Next, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in precluding the Defendant from cross-examining his daughter about certain provocative comments and suggestive photos on her MySpace account. Trial judges have discretion to determine the scope of the cross-examination of a witness People v. Corby, 6 N.Y.3d 231, 234, 811 N.Y.S2d 613, 844 N.E2d 1135 2005. The trial court allowed Defendant leeway in portraying the nature of the material on his daughter’s MySpace account and the conflict that arose between them over the postings.

During cross-examination, the daughter admitted that Defendant was “very angry” about what he had found on her account. Although the trial court could have permitted further inquiry, it was not an abuse of discretion to preclude additional cross-examination regarding the precise images or content because it was obvious that the inappropriate postings on the daughter’s MySpace account caused friction between Defendant and his daughter.

In determining issues of relevancy of evidence, The Court of Appeals held that the trial courts possess latitude to admit or preclude evidence based on their analysis of its probative value against the danger that it will confuse the main issues, cause unfair prejudice to the other side or be cumulative People v. Petty, 7 N.Y.3d 277, 286, 819 N.Y.S.2d 684, 852, N.E.2d 1115 2006. As with the MySpace evidence, the court did permit testimony regarding the controversy over the daughter’s attire and Defendant’s negative reaction to her clothing choices.

In sum, the Court of Appeals held that the trial judge gave Defendant sufficient latitude to develop the theory that his older daughter had substantial reasons to fabricate; either to put an end to Defendant’s parental interference or to avoid being sent to an institution for troubled youths. The proof showed that Defendant contacted the police to find her; constantly argued about relationships with boys; objected to her staying out late at night; criticizing her clothing; ordered her to discontinue her MySpace page; believed her to be disrespectful toward authority figures; and warned her that her behavior would result in her placement in the Villa.

The Court of Appeals held that the Defendant was therefore able to present evidence reflecting his parental concern over his daughter’s inappropriate and risky behavior, which he claimed provoked his daughter’s motivation to lie about his alleged conduct. The Court of Appeals held that there was no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s exclusion of the challenged evidence. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.


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