"Lifestyle" As Evidence Of A Crime

In common English usage, the word "propensity" signifies a person's inclination or tendency to behave in a particular manner; the word "lifestyle" also reflects a person's behavior, but attitudes, values or way of living that the person shares with others as well. FRE 404(b) limits the use of propensity evidence, does it do the same with the use of a person's lifestyle? A Sixth Circuit case provides insight into the admissibility of "lifestyle" evidence as a broader case of propensity evidence in a capital trial in which evidence of the defendant's lifestyle was admitted in order to explain a possible motive for the defendant's killing of his victim during a robbery, in United States v. Lawrence, __ F.3d __ (6th Cir. Oct. 22, 2013) (No. 06–4105)

Whether evidence is relevant is a highly fact-dependent determination. FRE 401 defines relevant evidence as that which "has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” As a result, the proponent of the evidence must be able to articulate exactly what the evidence shows is more or less probable than had it not been known. The FRE also imposes limitations on the use of evidence, severely limiting the use of a person's "propensity" as admissible evidence. Does the same apply to evidence of "lifestyle"? In Lawrence, the Sixth Circuit provides an extensive discussion of what makes lifestyle evidence relevant and admissible in the defendant's robbery/murder trial.

Death Penalty Proceedings

In the case, defendant Lawrence was charged with committing, or attempting to commit, four bank robberies in a year's time. Only a week after the last incident, in which he killed a police officer in a shoot-out that aborted the robbery, the defendant was arrested. He was charged with a death-eligible offense in connection with using a firearm during and in relation of a crime to commit murder. In connection with the robberies he was "eligible to be punished by death under the Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3591(a); and charged with two statutory aggravating factors in connection with the murder under 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c), i.e., that Lawrence knowingly created a grave risk of death to one or more persons in addition to the victim, and that Lawrence committed the murder in expectation of pecuniary gain." Lawrence, __ F.3d at __.

The defendant appealed this death sentence, complaining of many errors at the trial, such as that the court erred in admitting prosecution evidence of the defendant's "lifestyle" in order to prove the "pecuniary gain" aggravating factor that made him eligible for the death sentence he was given. The defendant complained on appeal that allowing the introduction of evidence about his "lavish lifestyle ... was irrelevant to proving the pecuniary gain factor and was overwhelmingly prejudicial." Lawrence, __ F.3d at __.

Lifestyle Testimony

As evidence of the defendant's lavish lifestyle, the prosecution offered three witnesses:

Two were friends of Lawrence who testified about trips they took with him. The third was a police detective who testified about his attempts to trace the proceeds of Lawrence's bank robberies. The evidence showed that Lawrence stole $200,000 in the first bank robbery. Shortly thereafter, he took two trips to Los Angeles with friends and spent money on expensive hotel rooms, luggage, tickets to professional basketball games, limousines, jewelry, and night clubs. He also bought two vehicles at a total cost of about $37,000. A month before the second bank robbery, Lawrence pawned jewelry and luggage. The second robbery yielded $7,000 and the third, $80,000. After the third robbery, he reclaimed the items he had pawned. Shortly before the fourth robbery, Lawrence pawned personal possessions and his vehicles.

Lawrence, __ F.3d at __.

Purpose of Admitting Lifestyle Evidence

The circuit rejected the defense contention that the evidence about the defendant's lifestyle was not relevant to the case. Instead, the circuit found that the "defendant's lavish lifestyle was 'relevant to both demonstrate motive and support an inference that the defendant committed the crime'; the defendant's 'spending habits and previous bank robberies' were relevant 'to establish motive, intent, and the pecuniary gain aggravating factor'; 'lifestyle evidence was thus offered to help explain the avarice that motivated Lawrence to commit the bank robberies. The government contended the jury could infer from the lifestyle evidence that when Hurst became an obstacle, Lawrence, driven by the compulsion of his spending habits, used deadly force to remove Hurst in expectation of a greater take from the [a robbed bank's] vault." Lawrence, __ F.3d at __.

As explained by the circuit:

in evaluating whether the pecuniary gain factor was proven, the jury had to determine whether Lawrence shot Hurst in order (a) to remove an obstacle to the attempted bank robbery, or (b) to abort the bank robbery attempt and secure his escape. If the jury were to find the former, then the pecuniary gain factor would have been established; if the latter, then the pecuniary gain factor would not have been established. The government's purpose in introducing the lavish lifestyle evidence was to show that Lawrence had become accustomed to certain pleasures that money could buy. Having learned from earlier robberies that his chances of making a big haul from a robbery were enhanced if he gained access to the bank vault, the government argued that Lawrence's now accustomed lifestyle drove him to threaten or use violence to reach the vault. The lifestyle evidence was thus offered to help explain the avarice that motivated Lawrence to commit the bank robberies. The government contended the jury could infer from the lifestyle evidence that when Hurst became an obstacle, Lawrence, driven by the compulsion of his spending habits, used deadly force to remove Hurst in expectation of a greater take from the vault.

Lawrence, __ F.3d at __.

Conclusion

The analysis set forth in Lawrence has been replicated by other circuits as well. For example, the First Circuit in United States v. Appolon, __ F.3d __ (1st Cir. Sept. 19, 2012) (Nos. 10-2243, 10-2350, 10-2266, 11-1130, 10-2313) also approved the introduction of evidence of a defendant's lifestyle. Appolon was a wire fraud trial involving the defendants' alleged mortgage fraud scheme. The court admitted under FRE 404(b) testimony regarding a defendant's use of "some of the proceeds" of the fraudulent scheme to purchase "marijuana, clothes, vehicles, and firearms" which had a "special relevance" meaning they could establish "his motive for participating in the scheme -- his need to finance a lavish lifestyle." See The "Special Relevance" Requirement In The First Circuit.

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