In a criminal proceeding, juries base their decisions on the evidence that is presented during trial. Evidence may be gathered by police, submitted by victims, or, in the case of Florida’s Williams Rule, may include a defendant’s past criminal history.
The court system has certain rules around what kinds of evidence are and are not allowed to be considered in a trial. Prosecutors are not allowed to use evidence that was collected illegally or use someone’s past criminal history as evidence that they are going to commit a future crime.
However, Florida’s Williams Rule changes things for defendants. This rule states that prosecutors may use someone’s past criminal record when trying to prove different factors like motive, intent, opportunity, and more. This can have a huge impact on many defendants’ cases if they have been convicted in the past.
History of the Williams Rule
Codified in Florida Rule of Evidence 90.404(2), Florida’s Williams Rule is based on the 1998 Williams vs. State of Florida court case. In this case, Florida prosecutors were first allowed to introduce evidence of other wrongs, crimes, or acts performed by the defendant that may prove they are responsible for the crime at hand.
Jose G. Williams was convicted of committing burglary in Florida. During his trial, the arresting officer brought up that he had seen William commit a previous theft, but Williams was not successfully caught for it. Despite opposition from the defendant, the jury was allowed to use this previous event as evidence that he committed the later burglary.
This case set a precedent for prosecutors today to use a defendant’s past against them in court.
Understanding Character Evidence
Evidence centered around the defendant’s character or behaviors is not admissible evidence to support the defendant acting in a certain way in a particular scenario.
Because of this, the state cannot use any testimony against the defendant that purports they are a violent person. These generalizations may unfairly sway the jury to assume that because someone was violent in the past, they must have become violent in this, another specific occasion.
The prosecution is also barred from using past crimes to prove the defendant in question is likely to misbehave or act in bad character. However, the Williams Rule makes matters more complicated.
How the Rule Is Used
Prosecutors may use someone’s history, but only under certain circumstances. As stated, they may not use someone’s criminal past to prove “criminal propensity” or suggest that the only reason someone may commit a crime is because they have done so in the past.
The Williams Rule states that prosecutors in the state of Florida may propose evidence of past crimes or wrongdoings when proving things such as:
- Lack of mistake (meaning a crime was not committed on accident, but on purpose)
The Williams Rule works by allowing the state to round up evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts or crimes when trying to show a motive for the crime. Commonly, the Williams Rule is used to establish a modus operandi, or M.O., which means “a particular way or method of doing something.”
As an example, say the defendant is facing robbery charges. In this case, thanks to the Williams Rule, the prosecution team may introduce evidence that shows the defendant, in the past, using the same antique gun with their initials carved into the bottom to prove that they used an identical weapon again in the current case.
How Florida’s Williams Rule Impacts You
Florida’s Williams Rule greatly affects defendants who have a previous criminal record, even if that record is not relevant to a new charge. A defendant who has previously committed crimes in a particular way may have evidence used against them to show the crime was committed in the same way by the same person.
One controversial way the Williams Rule impacts defendants involved child sexual assault cases. The Williams Rule was recently expanded more broadly in child molestation cases. In these cases, past sexual offenders’ evidence may be used to determine whether they committed a similar offense presently.
However, past evidence of sexual offenses is only allowed if it satisfies all evidence standards as set forth by the state. The evidence must be used for corroborative purposes, must be close enough in both time and incidence, and the evidence must not inspire prejudice against the defendant.
This rule is controversial because it assumes that past sexual offenses will always add some prejudice against the defendant. When this kind of information is introduced, juries cannot separate the past and current. They may aim to punish the defendant for past choices or behavior, which disregards their innocence in the current proceeding.
At Mike G Law, an aggressive defense attorney can help make sure your rights are protected in court and you are given a fair trial—no matter your past.
Before the evidence may be admitted into a jury trial, all evidence must individually meet the following standards:
- The state must file an intent to use the Williams Rule evidence beforehand.
- They must file the intent a minimum of 10 days before the first day of the trial.
- The state must describe the evidence it plans to enter.
- The defendant is entitled to attend a hearing on the admissibility of the evidence at hand.
- If the judge admits the evidence, the jury must be instructed on the limited reasoning for the introduction of the new evidence.
- The jury must be explicitly instructed not to accuse the defendant based on the Williams Rule evidence alone.
Your attorney will ensure that the prosecutor meets these standards—and does not try to slip evidence through the cracks.
In cases where the Williams Rule evidence may cause a jury to become prejudiced against the defendant, the defense may use “Reverse Williams Rule” to enter evidence of the same crime committed by someone else.
Criminal Defense Attorney Protection From The Williams Rule
If you are concerned that your past will affect your current case, you need an attorney that knows how to defend against the Williams Rule.
At Mike G Law, we can help individuals who have a prior criminal record and are subject to the Williams Rule during court proceedings. Contact our team at Mike G Law if you or someone you love has been arrested and wants to learn more about the Williams Rule being used against you in court. Our experienced attorneys are here to protect your rights.