A Suspect But Not A Suspect Class: Court Denies Equal Protection Challenge To California’s Domestic Violence Character Evidence Rule

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I would like to thank Ann Bartow for extending me the invitation to post here.   I am in my second year at The John Marshall Law School, where I teach Evidence, Civil Procedure, and Criminal Procedure.   I do my primary blogging at EvidenceProf Blog, and my posts here will  address opinions and articles that deal with evidence law and which I think might be of interest to readers of this blog.   Conveniently, my first post is about a New Year’s-related opinion:

The recent opinion of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California    in Dixon v. Runnels, 2008 WL 3539515 (N.D. Cal. 2008), contained a rare Equal Protection  challenge to a rule of evidence.   And like a similar Equal Protection  challenge launched against Federal Rule of Evidence 414, it was correctly not received with open arms.

In Runnels, Melvin Gaines arrived home at 12:30 A.M. on January 2nd, 1997 and found his mother, Debra “Dimples” Gaines,  who had  passed away  after being stabbed 28 times, including 3 fatal wounds.   A pathologist later determined that Debra died between 18 and 30 hours before  Melvin discovered her body.   Suspicion soon turned to Debra’s husband, Larry Dixon, who allegedly had committed several prior acts of domestic violence against  both his former girlfriend and his  ex-wife.   Eventually Dixon was both charged  with the first degree murder of Debra and convicted after  the prosecution elicited testimony  concerning  his prior misdeeds.

If Dixon’s  trial were conducted  in a court using either the  Federal Rules of Evidence  or most state counterparts, this evidence would have been inadmissible pursuant to some version of Rule 404(b), which states that “[e]vidence of  other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.”   But Dixon’s  trial was heard in California state court, and California Evidence Code Section 1109(a)(1)  states that:

        “Except as provided in subdivision (e) or (f), in a criminal action in which the defendant is accused of an offense involving domestic violence, evidence of the defendant’s commission of other domestic violence is not made inadmissible by Section 1101 if the evidence is not inadmissible pursuant to Section 352.”

Dixon thus  was met with failure when he tried to appeal  his conviction in the California state court system, and he eventually filed a  petition for a writ of habeas corpus to vacate his conviction, claiming, inter alia, that Section 1109 “violated his equal protection rights because the statute singles out for unequal treatment individuals who are accused of committing violent offenses against persons with whom they have had a domestic relationship.”   According to Dixon,  ”he should [have]  be[en] treated like other individuals who are accused of committing violent crimes against non-domestic partners.”

The court, however, rapidly rejected this argument, noting that the Ninth Circuit in United States v. LeMay, 260 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2001),  turned away a similar Equal Protection  argument that a defendant  launched against Federal Rule of Evidence 414, which states that:

        “In a criminal case in which the defendant   is accused of an offense of child molestation, evidence of the defendant’s commission of another offense or offenses of child molestation is admissible, and may be considered for its bearing on any matter to which it is relevant.”

According to the Ninth Circuit in LeMay, sex offenders are not a suspect class under the Fourteenth Amendment, meaning that  Federal Rule of Evidence 414  is constitutional because it bears a reasonable relationship to the legitimate governmental interest of prosecuting crime  and  furthers that interest by allowing the prosecution to introduce relevant evidence to help convict sex offenders.

The Northern District of California  in  Runnels adopted this same reasoning in finding California Evidence Code Section 1109(a)(1)  withstood Runnels’ Equal Protection  challenge.   According to the court,

        “Similarly, individuals who commit violent offenses against their domestic partners are not a suspect class. Thus, § 1109 is constitutional if it bears a reasonable relationship to a legitimate government purpose. Prosecuting domestic violence crimes is a legitimate government interest and § 1109 furthers that interest. Therefore, § 1109 does not violate Petitioner’s equal protections rights. Petitioner’s Equal Protection claim is DENIED.”

It seems to me that both the Northern District of California  and the Ninth Circuit reached the correct conclusion, and, because rules of evidence do not tend to apply disparately to suspect classes, I don’t think that litigants will find much success in raising Equal Protection  challenges against them.

-Colin Miller

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0 Responses to A Suspect But Not A Suspect Class: Court Denies Equal Protection Challenge To California’s Domestic Violence Character Evidence Rule

  1. Ann Bartow says:

    Great first post, Colin. Thanks, and welcome.