Failure to give limiting instruction leads to reversal of evading arrest conviction

Yesterday, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a Maury County defendant’s conviction for evading arrest, a Class E felony, and driving on a revoked license, a Class B misdemeanor.  The incident in question involved a man evading arrest with a goatee.  At trial, the officer who saw the driver testified, “He didn’t look the same as he looks exactly today.  He did have facial hair that day also, a goatee.”  During cross-examination of the defendant’s father, the father testified that the defendant never had a goatee in his life.  In response, the State moved to admit a photograph of the defendant with a goatee into evidence.  The State specifically stated that the photo was not introduced to show the defendant had facial hair on the night of the crimes but only to show that he had facial hair at some point in his life.

During jury deliberations, the jury sent out the following questions:

  1. What is the date of the photo and where is it from?
  2. Why was it taken?
  3. Is the photo from his driver’s license? 
  4. Is this the photo that was used to ID [the defendant]?

After both parties objected to reopening the proof to answer the questions, the court called the jury out and gave the following instruction:

So the Court’s official response to your questions is this[:] we cannot reopen the evidence part of the trial, but you are reminded that the jury may make reasonable inferences from evidence that is already before you. . . . Sometimes if you do not directly know what you want to know, maybe you can figure it out from circumstantial evidence that gives you reasonable inferences of what that direct evidence might have been if you did hear it.

On appeal, the court of criminal appeals noted that the photograph was irrelevant to any issue at trial and only admitted to impeach the father’s testimony that the defendant never had a goatee.  Since the photograph was not admissible as substantive evidence that the defendant had a goatee the night of the crimes, the trial court should have instructed the jury that the photograph could only be used to impeach the father’s credibility.  Further, given the jury’s confusion on what to do with the photograph and the fact that the State’s case was not overwhelming, the appellate court could not say that the error was harmless.  Based on the foregoing, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

State v. Sharp, No. M2016-01072-CCA-R3-CD (Oct. 24, 2017)

 

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