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State v. Gallegos

State v. Gallegos, 2020 UT App 162 (Harris, J.)

Criminal

Prison guards found a shank—cut from a bedframe—hidden in a shoe in a prison cell occupied by Gallegos and his cellmate. At trial for possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, the jury heard that Gallegos had previously possessed a similar shank, had gang affiliations, and learned about Gallegos’s and his cellmate’s sentences and parole statuses. On appeal, Gallegos argued that those admissions prejudiced the verdict. The Utah Court of Appeals reversed, holding:

  1. The trial court exceeded its discretion under rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence when it allowed the jury to consider evidence that Gallegos had previously possessed a shank four years ago to show that he now constructively possessed a shank here. 
    • Gallegos did not assert that he lacked “knowledge” about how to make the shank, and his state of mind was never in question, the State’s mention of “motive” in its brief is fleeting, and “intent” evidence here is merely a “ruse.” A proper non-character purpose to admit this evidence did not exist. 
    • The risk of unfair prejudice is high. Any probative value the evidence had under a rule 403 balancing test is limited and substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
    • Introduction of evidence that Gallegos had previously possessed a similar shank was powerful evidence that may very well have made a difference to the jury’s evaluation of which version of events to believe.
  2. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting any of the gang evidence proffered by the State. The probative value of the gang related evidence, including tattoos, was high.
  3. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence about the sentences Gallegos and his cellmate were serving. The probative value of the evidence was high under the circumstances of the case.
  4. The evidence that Gallegos could serve “five-to-life” for his charge in the present case had little probative value and carried with it a significant potential for unfair prejudice, and was subject to exclusion under rule 403. But introduction of this evidence does not warrant reversal on its own.

Read the full court opinion

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