• Michael M. Stover

Williams Rule and Its Implication on Collateral Crimes

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Everything you need to know regarding how the State is trying to get in evidence of other crimes against your client.

What is the William's rule?

“Simply Stated it's Collateral Crimes Evidence”

Evidence of bad acts not included in the charged offenses is generally referred to as “collateral crimes evidence.” Collateral crimes evidence includes similar fact evidence, which is governed by section 90.404, Florida Statutes, and is commonly referred to as “Williams rule evidence.” See Williams v. State, 110 So.2d 654 (Fla.1959). As defined by section 90.404(2), Florida Statutes (2005) Pulcini v. State, 41 So. 3d 338, 344 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010).

In what legal applications should the William's Rule be used?

Williams rule evidence (similar fact evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts) is admissible:

A. when relevant to prove a material fact in issue,

i. including, but not limited to,

ii. proof of motive,

iii. opportunity,

iv. Intent,

v. preparation,

vi. plan,

vii. knowledge,

viii. Identity, or

ix. absence of mistake or accident,

B. but it is inadmissible when the evidence is relevant solely to prove bad character or propensity. Fla. Stat 90.404 et sec; See Pulcini v. State, 41 So. 3d 338, 344 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010)

It is not good enough for the admission of Williams rule for evidence to go toward an element of the crime and therefore it is material. There must be a genuine dispute over a material fact that collateral-crime or Williams rule evidence is offered to prove, then the probative value of such evidence necessarily has significantly less importance than its prejudicial effect, and the evidence should be excluded. Jackson v. State, 140 So. 3d 1067 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014).

To be clear, the caselaw indicates that Williams rule was not created to fill holes in the State’s case, but to refute material issues such as mistake, lack of mistake, intent, etc. then they are in contention. See Pratt v. State, 1 So.3d 1169, 1170–71 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009). (reversing admission of collateral-crime evidence that defendant beat his wife three times in the 18 months preceding the charged crime to show motive or intent because the defendant denied committing the charged crime and “[n]either party did anything to make motive or intent significant to any contested fact”); Roberts v. State, 662 So.2d 1308, 1310 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995) (reversing admission of collateral-crime evidence offered to show intent and absence of mistake because those issues “[were] not actually in dispute”); Jordan v. State, 171 So.2d 418, 422 (Fla. 1st DCA 1965) (reversing admission of testimony concerning defendants' prior criminal offenses as evidence of their intent to commit the present offense because the prior offenses “had no relevant bearing upon the issue being tried”) Jackson v. State, 140 So. 3d 1067, 1071 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014).

Determining the admissibility of William's Rule Evidence and factors to consider.

The general guidelines used today have been developed from McLean v. State, 934 So.2d 1248 (Fla.2006). In that case, the Florida Supreme Court stated: “To guide the trial courts in deciding whether to admit evidence of prior acts of child molestation when it is offered to corroborate the victim's testimony . . . .

A. The first determination is whether the Defendant committed the prior crime. “one of the requirements for admitting Williams rule evidence is the moving party must show by clear and convincing proof that the defendant committed the collateral crimes.” Hernandez v. State, 16 So. 3d 336, 340 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009). To meet the clear and convincing standard, “[t]he evidence must be credible; the memories of the witnesses must be clear and without confusion; and the sum total of the evidence must be of sufficient weight to convince the trier of fact without hesitancy.” J.F. v. Dep't of Children and Fam, 890 So.2d 434, 439 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004). “On appeal, a finding of clear and convincing evidence is presumed to be correct and will not be overturned unless it lacks evidentiary support or is clearly erroneous. Id.

B. Does the probative value substantially outweigh the prejudicial effect.

In assessing whether the probative value of evidence of previous molestations is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, the trial court should evaluate:

a. the similarity of the prior acts to the act charged regarding the location of where the acts occurred, the age and gender of the victims, and the manner in which the acts were committed;

b. the closeness in time of the prior acts to the act charged (Remoteness)

c. the frequency of the prior acts; (Very seldom used) and

d. the presence or lack of intervening circumstances. This list is not exclusive. The trial courts should also consider other factors unique to the case. Pulcini, 41 So. 3d at 344.

i. A, b, c, and d are not subfactors of the probative value, but more a factors list to determine relevance.

Factors to consider.

As to similarity, While “[a] collateral crime proven by similar evidence does not need to be absolutely identical to the crime charged in order to be admissible,” see Triplett v. State, 947 So.2d 702, 703 (Fla. 5th DCA 2007), the alleged crimes must be similar in at least some, if not many, respects. See id. at 704 (upholding trial court's admission of Williams rule testimony where collateral act of molestation and the charged molestation shared “numerous similarities”); see also Grier, 27 So.3d at 101 (upholding admissibility of collateral crime evidence where “many points of similarity between the charged act and collateral act exist”); Macias v. State, 959 So.2d 782, 785 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007) (finding only one “fundamental difference” between the charged offense and collateral act). Here, the collateral acts do not share sufficient points of similarity with the charged crime to be admissible Pulcini v. State, 41 So. 3d 338, 346 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010).A good barometer to understand where a party needs to get to establish the similarity requirement is he witnesses' description of the 1979 offense, when compared with the events in the instant case, establish the two offenses were factually similar on the following points:

  1. Prior to committing both offenses, Burke had had family problems;

  2. Burke had been drinking beer immediately prior to the time of both offenses;

  3. At the time of the crimes, the child victims were approximately the same age;

  4. Both children were in a public place (a park and a baseball complex) when approached by Burke;

  5. Both were children alone;

  6. Both children were upset at having been separated from their families, and were looking for them;

  7. Burke offered to help both children look for their families;

  8. Burke attempted to get both children into secluded areas; and

  9. Burke grabbed both children and put his hand over their mouth during the offenses.

There was only one difference between the two offenses. In the 1979 offense Burke unzipped his pants and touched and licked the victim's vagina. In the instant case, Burke did no more than grab the victim from behind and put his hand over her mouth, allegedly touching her genital area. Burke claims that the two offenses are thus distinguishable. However, the victim in this case struggled and escaped Burke after he grabbed and touched her, and he did not have an opportunity to further pursue his offense as he did in the 1979 case. This difference is but a difference in opportunity, as noted in Chandler v. State, 702 So.2d 186, 193 (Fla.1997). Burke v. State, 835 So. 2d 286, 288 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002)

The Effect of remoteness.

"Under no circumstances hang your hat on the age of a case."

The older the conviction the State is trying to produce, the harder it is to get it in. However, this is a Red Herring as far as an avenue to get the evidence excluded by itself. You can foresee the factual scenario, the Court is so overwhelmed by the similarity, the manner it was committed and there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant committed the prior crime, the judges will just shove the Williams rule motion through, because with enough other evidence, remoteness can be overcome. In Burke v. State, 835 So. 2d 286, 289 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002) evidence regarding the 1979 offense is too remote in time because it occurred twenty-two years prior to the instant offense. The remoteness of a prior crime is one aspect of relevance, which tends to prove or disprove a material fact. Duffey v. State, 741 So.2d 1192, 1197 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999); § 90.404(2)(a). In a claim of remoteness, the trial court must consider not just the passage of time, but also the effect of the passage of time on the evidence. Heuring v. State, 513 So.2d 122, 123 (Fla.1987); Duffey. Remoteness precludes the use of evidence that has become unverifiable through loss of memory, unavailability of witnesses, and other similar problems. Heuring at 124. Admission of remote evidence is within the trial court's discretion. Id. The only thing I read here is under no circumstances hang your hat on the age of a case.

Frequency and why the Court usually only gives the State one case to rely on for William's Rule.

This will be addressed very briefly. In a trial for a hand to hand drug transaction where a dealer says he doesn’t know it is cocaine he is selling, the State can enter Williams Rule evidence of prior hand to hands to show that there was an absence of mistake. The important thing to know here is that Courts will, even with multiple viable Williams Rule cases for the movant, limit the number of cases to prevent from an overwhelming prejudicial effect and a potential reversal. Dorsett v. State, 944 So. 2d 1207, 1213 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006).

Additional resources provided by the author:

Progeny: Williams v. State, 110 So.2d 654 (Fla.1959)

Analysis: Pulcini v. State, 41 So. 3d 338, 344 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010)

Standard of proof: : Hernandez v. State, 16 So. 3d 336, 340 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009)

Example: Burke v. State, 835 So. 2d 286, 288 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002)

Distinguish from Example: Chandler v. State, 702 So.2d 186, 193 (Fla.1997)

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