When the Prosecution Can — and Can’t — Use Your Prior Bad Acts Against You as Part of a Maryland Criminal Trial

A lot of people who face criminal charges have, at some point in the past, had interactions with the criminal justice system. However, when you’re on trial, the law requires that the state build a case against you based on the crime charged, not on whether or not you did less-than-perfect things in your past. That’s why the law generally says that “prior bad acts” can’t be used in your trial. Understanding this and all the other legal rules that exist to protect you from an unfair prosecution is part of having a truly powerful defense. It’s also a crucial reason why it’s well worthwhile to have a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense lawyer on your side.

W.W. was one of those people. In 2017, he allegedly assisted a District Heights woman with modifying her mortgage. He told her he would serve as her lawyer and obtain the modification she sought. Over the course of that business relationship, he collected $3,495 for various expenses.

W.W., however, was not an attorney, and the woman’s home eventually ended up in foreclosure. The state charged W.W. with engaging in a theft scheme of more than $1,500 but less than $25,000.

As part of its case against the man, the state sought to present evidence of other schemes W.W. had allegedly perpetrated. The state argued that the man had “posed as an attorney and… taken money from various victims in the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia Metropolitan area.” The proof the prosecution wanted to present included a 2014 civil “Cease and Desist” order in Baltimore County, a 2017 indictment (and the man’s related 2019 guilty plea), and pending charges W.W. faced in Virginia, all allegedly related to the improper provision of foreclosure assistance.

At this juncture, it’s important to point out that Maryland law generally bars the induction of someone’s “prior bad acts” at trial, but that rule does allow for some exceptions. Subsection (b) of Maryland Rule of Evidence 5-404 contains the list of those exceptions. That rule says that proof of other bad acts isn’t admissible to prove “the character of a person,” but is admissible to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, common scheme or plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake/accident.”

The Other Instances Weren’t Relevant to Proving or Disproving the Accused’s Intent

In W.W.’s case, the relevant exception was intent. As the Court of Special Appeals concluded, the testimony of the four other people who the man allegedly fleeced in very similar ways did not have any “special relevance” regarding whether or not W.W. intended to deprive the District Heights woman of her property. The case against W.W. was that the alleged victim paid for services she never received. The central issue was “whether these services were provided or not” to the District Heights woman, and W.W.’s relationship to those four other alleged victims wasn’t relevant to deciding that.

The case could have gone differently. The court pointed out that, if the four other alleged victims had been “complaining witnesses” in the state’s case, their testimony would have been admissible. Part of mounting the most effective defense possible is recognizing when the prosecution has made certain errors or strategy decisions that you can use to your benefit and then doing so to the maximum extent.

The experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC are here to help you accomplish those goals and get the best possible outcome. We have extensive experience helping people accused of theft crimes in Maryland, and we’re here to help you. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form today.

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