Michigan Court of Appeals Holds Rape-Shield Law Excludes Evidence

On July 10th, 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals held in a criminal case that Michigan's rape-shield law, MCL 750.520j, properly prevented defendant from offering prior sexual acts of a minor to show the source of the victim's alleged disease and to show the victim's age-inappropriate sexual knowledge.

In People v Duenaz, Docket No. 311441, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed an appeal in which defendant claimed that the trial court committed error by excluding from evidence alleged prior sexual acts of the minor victim.

The Court first recited the facts of the case.

Defendant first argues that the trial court abused its discretion by ruling inadmissible evidence regarding a sexual assault that the victim’s then stepfather perpetrated on her about one year before the instant offenses. The stepfather had pleaded guilty to reduced charges of two counts third-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC III), MCL 750.520d, and one count of CSC II, and was sentenced to 10-15 years in prison. The trial court reviewed the police reports in the instant case and those from the earlier case and ruled that the under the rape-shield statute, MCL 750.520j, the defense could not inquire into the prior case involving the victim.

Defendant argues that the evidence was admissible under exceptions to the rape shield statute for sources of disease and to show an alternate source of the victim’s age-inappropriate sexual knowledge. He also contends that the probative value of this evidence outweighed any prejudicial effect. Further, defendant asserts the trial court’s ruling denied him his constitutional the right to present a defense and confront his accusers. We disagree . . . .

The Court's analysis of the rape-shield statute followed.

We conclude the proposed evidence was not relevant, MRE 401; therefore, it was not admissible, MRE 402. Moreover, the trial court did not abuse its discretion excluding the evidence because any marginally probative value of the evidence was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice or confusion of the issues. MRE 403; People v Ackerman, 257 Mich App 434, 442; 669 NW2d 818 (2003). Finally, defendant’s constitutional rights to present a defense and confront the witnesses against him were not violated. People v Arenda, 416 Mich 1, 8; 330 NW2d 814 (1982) (The right to confront and cross-examine witnesses does not include a right to cross-examine regarding irrelevant issues).

The rape-shield statute, MCL 750.520j, provides:

(1) Evidence of specific instances of the victim’s sexual conduct, opinion evidence of the victim’s sexual conduct, and reputation evidence of the victim’s sexual conduct shall not be admitted under sections 520b to 520g unless and only to the extent that the judge finds that the following proposed evidence is material to a fact at issue in the case and that its inflammatory or prejudicial nature does not outweigh its probative value:

(a) Evidence of the victim’s past sexual conduct with the actor.

(b) Evidence of specific instances of sexual activity showing the source or origin of semen, pregnancy, or disease.

Similarly, MRE 404(a)(3) provides an exception to the general rule excluding character evidence for, in a CSC case, [']evidence of the alleged victim’s past sexual conduct with the defendant and evidence of specific instances of sexual activity showing the source or origin of semen, pregnancy, or disease . . . .[']

The rape-shield statute [']‘bars, with two narrow exceptions, evidence of all sexual activity by the complainant not incident to the challenged rape.’['] People v Adair, 452 Mich 473, 478; 550 NW2d 505 (1996), quoting People v Stull, 127 Mich App 14, 17; 338 NW2d 403 (1983) (emphasis in original). Because the statute excludes evidence that in most cases would be only minimally relevant, the statute’s prohibitions do not deny or significantly diminish a defendant’s right of confrontation. Arenda, 416 Mich at 11. Moreover, evidence of a complainant’s sexual history also [']is usually irrelevant as impeachment evidence because it has no bearing on character for truthfulness.['] Adair, 452 Mich at 481, citing MRE 608. This is especially so in this case, where the evidence was not intended to show [']bias, motive, or a pattern of false accusations.['] Id., n 5. If one of the statute’s exceptions applies, the trial court must determine whether the inflammatory or prejudicial nature of the evidence [']outweighs['] its probative value, not [']substantially outweighs,['] as in MRE 403. Adair, 452 Mich at 481.

The evidence defendant sought to admit concerning the victim’s prior sexual experience did not fit within either of the narrow exceptions provided by the rape-shield statute. MCL 750.520j(1)(a), (b). The statute was enacted to prohibit inquiry into a victim’s prior sexual encounters, which were historically used by defendants charged with CSC involving an adult in an effort to prove the defense of consent. The statute was a legislative policy determination that sexual conduct or reputation regarding sexual conduct as evidence of character and for impeachment, while perhaps logically relevant, is not legally relevant. People v Hackett, 421 Mich 338, 346; 365 NW2d 120 (1984). Although consent is not a relevant defense to a CSC charge involving an underage minor, Michigan courts have applied the rape-shield statute in cases involving child victims. See Arenda, 416 Mich at 6, 13; Benton, 294 Mich App at 197- 198; People v Morse, 231 Mich App 424, 430; 586 NW2d 555 (1998); People v Garvie, 148 Mich App 444, 448-449; 384 NW2d 796 (1986).

Although the proffered evidence does not fit within one of the rape-shield exceptions, in limited situations evidence the statute excludes may nevertheless be relevant and admissible to preserve a defendant’s constitutional right of confrontation. Hackett, 421 Mich at 348–349; Benton, 294 Mich App at 197. Our Supreme Court has directed that trial courts inform the exercise of their discretion in regard to such a constitutional claim by conducting an in camera hearing. Hacket, 421 Mich at 349. Here, defendant asserts that evidence of the prior assault was relevant and admissible as an alternative explanation for the victim’s inappropriate sexual knowledge. The trial court reviewed police reports of the earlier offenses and heard arguments of counsel at a bench conference and on the record. As the prosecutor notes, the only similarity between the two cases was that both involved anal and vaginal penetration. The two cases were certainly not [']significantly similar.['] See Morse, 231 Mich App at 437. In addition, defendant’s theory of relevance was just that. The victim was 12 years old when she testified in this case about what occurred when she was almost 8 years old. It is pure speculation to suggest (1) that victim’s knowledge of sexual matters was inappropriate and (2) that the victim’s knowledge of sexual matters derived from an experience in her life a year prior to the instant offenses. So, the evidence is not at all probative of the victim’s credibility. Its admission would have only created [']a real danger of misleading the jury['] and [']an obvious invasion of the victim’s privacy.['] Arenda, 416 Mich at 12. In sum, the record indicates that the trial court balanced the rights of the victim and defendant, as required by Morse, 231 Mich App at 433, and its ruling excluding the evidence was well within the range of principled outcomes. Benton, 294 Mich App at 195.