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When Is Evidence of Prior Uncharged Acts Admissible?

On the night of March 29, 2018, in Sacramento County, Ashneel Mani broke into the garage of the house where his mother and brother lived.  The garage was connected to the house, so he then entered the house.

Mani’s brother heard the noise created by the breaking in and opened his bedroom door to see his brother running up the stairs toward him carrying a kitchen knife.  Scared, defendant’s brother slammed shut his door, locked it and called 911.  He yelled to his mom to shut and lock her door, too, which she did.  At the time, there was a civil restraining order against Ashneel Mani to stay away from his brother and mom at their house.

Police came and arrested Mr. Mani with the help of a police helicopter and crisis response team.  He was then tried for first degree residential burglary (Penal Code § 459) and willfully violating a court order (Penal Code § 166(a)(4)).  The jury found Mr. Mani guilty of both charges. The jury also found it true that Mr. Mani had a prior conviction for a strike offense (Penal Code §§ 667(a), 667(b) – (i), 1170.12).  The trial court judge, Kevin Culhane, sentenced Mr. Mani to 13 years in state prison.

Mr. Mani appealed the verdict on three grounds, each related to the judge’s ruling to allow the introduction of evidence of prior uncharged acts.  Mani argued that the cumulative effect of these errors was undue prejudice and that the verdict must be reversed.

Mr. Mani then appealed these rulings to the Third Appellate District Court in Sacramento, which affirmed the trial court.
Brief Synopsis: A judge may allow the admission of evidence of prior uncharged domestic violence acts under Evidence Code § 1109 when the evidence seems to be probative toward defendant’s modus operandi and knowledge of a civil restraining order against defendant.
This article is presented for the reader’s consideration because the introduction of prior uncharged acts is commonly an issue that is hotly debated and this article may help the reader better understand exactly what California law permits in this area.

Perhaps the strongest argument, albeit unsuccessful, that Mr. Mani made was that residential burglary, based on an intent to steal theory, is not an act of domestic violence even under the expanded definition of domestic violence for which prior acts of domestic violence are admissible under Penal Code § 1109 and the related jury instruction that the jury could consider such prior act evidence for proof of Mr. Mani’s propensity to commit residential burglary. 

The trial court judge found, and the appellate court agreed, that Mr. Mani’s breaking into the victims’ home with the intent to steal was a form of harassment and surely disturbed the peace of the victims.

The prior uncharged act evidence was quite interesting.  The jury heard that in April 2016, police were dispatched over to the victims’ house because Mr. Zani was there in violation of a civil restraining order.  He told police he knew there was a civil restraining order against him, but his mom had invited him over to pick up and take his bed “and that his family had software to control his mind.”  No charges were filed over this, but the evidentiary effect of this evidence had to be to cause the jury to think Mr. Mani was “nut job.”

About a year later, police were dispatched again to the house.  Mr. Mani’s brother reported that he heard his brother downstairs yelling and screaming.  He then went down and found his brother seated in his mom’s car.  He then drove the car out and appeared to be trying to steal the car, however, he then turned around and drove it up over the sidewalk at the brother, missing him by inches, before driving off in the car.  Police later found him, returned the car and did not charge him with anything.  At the time, there was a restraining order in place.

Then again, about a year later, defendant’s brother testified that Mr. Mani came to the house, was yelling and screaming and entered the garage to steal a stereo and a stereo speaker.  To enter the garage, defendant had kicked open a door and broke off the doorjambs.  The locking mechanism was violently ripped off.  At the time, there was a restraining order in place.  No charges were filed.

About two weeks later, there was a further breaking and entering the garage by Mr. Mani, right after the family had just repaired the door to the garage.  Mr. Mani then kicked the door in again, damaging the door in the same manner as before. 

The again, about a month before the offense for which Mr. Mani was arrested, defendant’s brother reported that Mr. Mani entered the house about 4:00 a.m., yelling and screaming and banging doors before leaving on his own after ten or fifteen minutes.

Penal Code § 1109(a)(1) provides with exceptions not applicable here that “[I]n a criminal action in which defendant is accused of an offense involving domestic violence, evidence of defendant’s commission of other domestic violence is not made inadmissible by section 1101 if the evidence is not inadmissible pursuant to Section 352.”  Section 1101 generally provides that character evidence in the form of a prior act is not admissible to prove someone acted to prove someone acted a specific way on a later date.  Section 352 generally provides that evidence is not admissible if its probative value is outweighed by undue prejudice against defendant, involves undue consumption of time or confuses the issues.

Domestic violence, under Penal Code § 1109, is defined by Family Code § 6211 if the acted occurred no more than five years before the charged offense and is “abuse committed against an adult  or a minor who is a spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or person with whom the suspect has had a child or is having or has had a dating or engagement relationship.”  Abuse is defined under Penal Code § 11370 as “intentionally or recklessly causing or attempting to cause bodily injury, or placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent serious bodily injury to himself or herself, or another.”

The appellate court opinion shows it struggled with how the prior evidence might be inadmissible under 352, but there was little doubt that it was admissible under 1109. 

We present this summary to suggest that if one faces a series of prior uncharged act events as evidence, the stronger argument against admission is under Evidence Code § 352 and not to fight on 1109.  Here, as in most cases, what the prior act evidence seemed to imply was that Mr. Mani was simply nuts and disregarded any restraining order repeatedly, despite being well aware of it.  This caused the jury to feel no difficulty in convicting him, as the real issue, not charged, might have been attempted murder, so convicting him of a lesser charge was fair.

The citation for the Third Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Ashneel Mani (3rd App. Dist., 2022) 74 Cal. App. 5th 343, 289 Cal. Rptr. 3d 452.

For more information about prior act evidence, please click on the following articles:
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