When the Prosecution in Your Maryland Criminal Case Can — and Can’t — Get Evidence in Based on the ‘Opening the Door’ Doctrine

If you watch enough courtroom movies or TV shows then you’ve likely seen the following scene or something like it: Our star, an intrepid attorney, has unearthed enormously helpful evidence but it is not admissible. Then the other side makes an ill-considered comment or asks an unfortunate (for them) question. Our protagonist seizes the moment and moves to admit the key evidence. When the other side objects, our intrepid advocate confidently counters, “Your Honor, they opened the door!” and gets the proof before the jury. Of course, real life is often much more complex than TV dramas and movies, but being able to use (or to block) an “opening the door” argument can be extremely important to your real-life case. When it comes to getting all of your best evidence admitted at trial, you don’t need a gifted actor; you need a skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney advocating for you.

So what exactly does “opening the door” look like… and not look like? A recent felony case that originated in Howard County helps us see. Police, who were investigating a string of burglaries and a robbery in late 2018, searched a Columbia home three times.

Ultimately, after finishing their searches and collecting evidence, the state charged R.D. with, among other things, armed robbery. At trial, the accused man admitted that he lied to the police about where he lived but said he did so to protect the woman who eventually became his wife. The prosecution then set about questioning R.D. about a “whole bunch of stolen goods and” property the police found inside the residence.

R.D.’s attorney objected, but the prosecutor countered that the defense had “opened the door” when R.D. testified about lying to the police about where he lived. The trial judge accepted that argument and allowed the questions.

The Court of Special Appeals declared that this was an error.

Two Essential Parts to an ‘Opening the Door’ Analysis

In Maryland, the “opening the door” doctrine “authorizes admitting evidence which otherwise would have been irrelevant in order to respond to (1) admissible evidence which generates an issue, or (2) inadmissible evidence admitted by the court over objection.” Even when a defendant does open the door, there are limits to what the state can do. The prosecutor cannot, for example, use evidence if it is more prejudicial than it is potentially probative of the truth.

So, in an “opening the door” dispute, there are two key things the court must decide: (1) did you open the door or not, and (2) is the evidence more probative of the truth or more likely to prejudice the jury against you?

In R.D.’s case, the questions the state asked did have a degree of value in exposing R.D.’s potential motivation for lying about where he lived. However, the degree of prejudice was far greater. He was on trial for armed robbery (where, by definition, he allegedly had stolen multiple items from victims) and the state was asking him questions in which the prosecutor made “multiple references to the ‘bunch of stolen goods’” found in his home, which very possibly could have unfairly prejudiced the jury into thinking that R.D. had a propensity to rob people and/or steal.

Based on that degree of prejudicial value, the questions should not have been allowed, they unfairly biased the jury, and they entitled R.D. to a new trial on the armed robbery charge.

Both before and during your criminal trial, the prosecution may rely on many different arguments to try to get favorable evidence before the jury. Part of giving yourself the best chance of success is being prepared to counter and defeat those arguments whenever possible. To do that, you need a powerful advocate on your side. Rely on the experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to be that advocate for you. If you are facing charges in Maryland, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form right away.

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