July 18, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: CRE 404(b) Modus Operandi Evidence May Only Be Admitted if Identity in Issue

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Williams on Thursday, April 7, 2016.

In May 2012, the police gave a confidential informant $20 with which to buy cocaine. She went to defendant’s apartment and returned without the money and with a rock of cocaine. She wore a wire during the transaction, but neither party said anything that was definitively related to a drug deal. A week later, police obtained a warrant to search defendant’s apartment and failed to find the $20, cocaine, or any paraphernalia commonly associated with drug dealing. Nevertheless, defendant was charged with distribution of cocaine.

Before trial, the prosecution submitted a CRE 404(b) motion requesting to admit evidence of a drug deal in which defendant had been involved in February 2012. The prosecution asserted the evidence was necessary to establish “common plan, scheme, design, modus operandi, motive, and guilty knowledge,” and to rebut any assertion of mistake or accident. The judge who presided over the pretrial motion, who was not the same judge who presided over the trial, granted the prosecution’s motion, but limited the evidence’s introduction to modus operandi or common plan, scheme, or design.

After hearing evidence regarding the February and May 2012 drug deals, the jury convicted Williams on the May deal. He appealed, contending the court erred in allowing the prejudicial CRE 404(b) evidence. On appeal, the court of appeals found that modus operandi evidence should only be admitted when identity is at issue, except in domestic violence and sexual assault cases governed by statute. Because in this case defendant’s identity was not at issue, the trial court erred in admitting the prejudicial evidence as modus operandi evidence. The court further noted that even if modus operandi evidence were allowed in this type of case, it would not have admitted the evidence here because the February drug deal lacked striking similarities with the May drug deal.

Defendant’s conviction was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.