Ohio Supreme Court Clarifies Permissible Uses of Other Acts

The Ohio Supreme Court announced its decision in State v. Hartman this week. In a unanimous opinion, The Court affirmed the 8th District Court of Appeals decision which reversed the defendant’s conviction. the Court also used the opinion to issue a reminder about the permissible purposes of other-acts evidence, and the differences between various exceptions to the character evidence rule. I discussed the factual background of this case in a previous post. Here are a few key points from the opinion:

  1. Modus Operandi Evidence

Modus Operandi is only relevant where identity is at issue. The evidence must show that two or more crimes were committed in such a unique way that the person who committed one of the crimes is likely to be the same person who committed the other. The mere fact that a defendant has committed the same kind of crime before does not make that evidence admissible as modus operandi. The Court concluded that the other acts admitted in this case were not similar enough to qualify as modus operandi evidence, and that even if they were, it would not have been relevant, because identity was not at issue.

  • Common Scheme or Plan

In contrast to modus operandi, other acts used to show common scheme or plan do not need to be similar at all. However, the acts must be carried out in furtherance of the same overall plan. Without this limitation, “proof that the accused has committed similar crimes is no different than proof that the accused has a propensity for committing that type of crime.” Writing for the Court, Justice Fisher offered an example of a proper use of common plan evidence from the tv series Breaking Bad: The fact that Walter and Jessie had stolen a barrel of methylamine, an ingredient in methamphetamine, would be admissible as evidence of their plan to illegally manufacture drugs.

  • Intent and Absence of Mistake 

The Court agreed with the State that intent and absence of mistake were relevant, since the Defendant suggested at trial that he could have mistakenly believed the victim consented. While the Court admitted that “there is a thin line between permissible use of other-acts evidence to show intent and the impermissible use to show propensity,” in this case it concluded that “the State’s theory is that because Hartman previously abused his stepdaughter, it is unlikely that he had consensual sex” with the victim. The Court held that this incident was too dissimilar, and too far removed from the present case to be probative of the Defendant’s intent or absence of mistake.

  • Intermediate Inferences

The Court held that, “It is not enough to say that the ultimate purpose for which other-acts evidence is offered is a permissible one; rather, we must ensure that any intermediate inferences are also free of impermissible character purposes.” The Court pointed out that the State’s use of other-acts evidence relied on an unstated inference that the Defendant preys on sleeping women, and therefore ran afoul of the character evidence prohibition.

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