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State v. Bell

July 27, 2006

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
RONALD JAMES BELL, APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. Evidence offered under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (2004) is not subject to the procedural requirements applicable to admission of evidence under Minn. R. Evid. 404(b).

2. The trial court properly considered the probative value versus prejudicial effect of evidence offered under Minn. Stat. § 634.20, and the court was not required to place its probative value versus prejudicial effect analysis on the record.

3. The trial court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted evidence under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 because the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by its potential prejudice.

4. The court of appeals erroneously applied a harmless error analysis to evidence it determined to be admissible.

Affirmed as modified.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Page, Justice.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

Appellant Ronald James Bell was convicted in Ramsey County District Court of first-degree burglary in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.582, subd. 1(c) (2004), and violation of a no-contact order under Minn. Stat. § 518B.01, subd. 22 (b) (2004). Bell appealed his conviction to the court of appeals, claiming that the trial court erred when it permitted, under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (2004), the introduction of evidence of two previous incidents in which Bell violated an order for protection (OFP) involving the same victim. The court of appeals affirmed. State v. Bell, 703 N.W.2d 858 (Minn. App. 2005). Bell petitioned for review and the state cross-petitioned for review. We granted both petitions.

In this appeal, Bell argues that the trial court erred in admitting the evidence of Bell's two prior OFP violations for three reasons: (1) the trial court failed to consider the state's need for the evidence; (2) the trial court failed to evaluate on the record the probative value of the evidence versus its potential for prejudice; and (3) the trial court erred in concluding that the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by its danger of unfair prejudice. In its cross-petition, the state contends that the court of appeals erred when it applied harmless error impact analysis to evidence it specifically held was admissible. We affirm the court of appeals as modified.

At the time of trial, D.N. and Bell had known one another for approximately 20 years and had previously been involved in a romantic but troubled relationship, during which they had lived together for a period of time. On May 21, 2002, D.N. sought and was granted an OFP against Bell. On two separate occasions, November 17, 2002, and March 28, 2003, Bell violated the OFP. He was arrested, charged, and convicted of both violations. On May 6, 2003, as part of Bell's probation for the March 28 OFP violation, the court issued a no-contact order prohibiting Bell from having any contact with D.N.

According to D.N., in the early morning hours of May 21, 2003, she was at home in bed with her boyfriend. At approximately 2:46 a.m., D.N. heard someone running up the back staircase of her home. When the individual reached the top of the stairs, D.N. recognized the person as Bell. Bell did not have permission to be in her house and was carrying a gun. According to D.N., Bell said "Bitch, I'm going to kill you now." Bell then beat both D.N. and her boyfriend with the gun, took D.N.'s jewelry and purse, and left the home as he had entered, by way of the back stairs. D.N. called 911. Two of D.N.'s cousins, who lived with D.N. and were home at the time of the incident, corroborated D.N.'s account. Bell was eventually arrested in Chicago and extradited to Minnesota for trial.

At the pretrial conference, the state moved to admit four prior instances of domestic abuse between Bell and D.N.--including the November 17 and March 28 OFP violations--pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 634.20, which allows admission of evidence of similar conduct by the accused against an alleged victim of domestic abuse.*fn1 The trial court held that the November 17 and March 28 OFP violations were admissible but excluded the other two incidents, reasoning, "I don't think I have enough for clear and convincing evidence. And I think it probably is more prejudicial than probative."*fn2 The court did not say anything further about the probative value versus potential prejudice of admitting into evidence the November 17 and March 28 OFP violations.

Evidence of the two OFP violations was subsequently admitted at trial. D.N. testified that on November 17, 2003, Bell arrived at her home, threw a ladder through a window and then got into his truck and "started ramming his truck against the garbage cans of the back porch and against the cement porch of the house." The police were called, and Bell was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to violating the OFP. D.N. further testified that on March 28, 2004, she came home from work, went to her bedroom, and found that Bell was in her bed and had taken money from her nightstand. D.N. asked Bell to return the money and leave her home, but he refused. D.N. then called the police. Bell was arrested, charged, and again pleaded guilty to violating the OFP. At the ...


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