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People v. Arafet

October 22, 2009

THE PEOPLE &C., RESPONDENT,
v.
NASIN ARAFET, APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, J.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

Defendant, convicted of stealing a trailer containing a million dollars worth of merchandise, claims that his rights under People v Molineux (168 NY 264 [1901]) were violated when evidence of four other criminal incidents was admitted at his trial. As to three of the incidents, we hold that there was no error. The evidence relating to the fourth incident should not have been admitted, but the error was harmless.

I.

The trailer that defendant was charged with stealing disappeared from a parking lot in Rotterdam, New York, near Exit 25A of the New York State Thruway, around 9:30 A.M. on July 26, 2003. The trailer, emptied of its contents and attached to a tractor, was found abandoned two days later on a highway in New Jersey, some 20 miles from where defendant lived. The evidence linking defendant to the crime, though entirely circumstantial, was compelling.

Records of calls made on defendant's cellular telephone showed that he traveled northward from his New Jersey home early on the morning of July 26, arriving before the time of the theft in the general area where the theft occurred. They also showed that, beginning around the time of the theft, defendant traveled southward, back toward New Jersey. The fastest route from the parking lot of Exit 25A to the area of northern New Jersey where defendant lived and where the trailer was found leaves the thruway at Exit 15, about 120 miles south of Exit 25A. Records of the New York Thruway Authority showed that a Class 5 vehicle -- a tractor-trailer -- entered through Exit 25A at 9:35 A.M. on the day of the theft, and left the thruway at Exit 15 an hour and 38 minutes later. No other tractor-trailer that had entered at Exit 25A left the thruway at Exit 15 between 10:15 A.M. and 1:30 P.M. on that day. A toll ticket issued to the one tractor- trailer that did travel that route in the hours immediately after the theft bore defendant's fingerprint.

In addition, the cell phone records identified the recipients of calls that defendant made while on his southward journey. Three of the calls were to a business at 530 Duncan Avenue in Jersey City operated by Jose Gotay, who rented several truck bays there. A fourth call was to Florida, to a cell phone belonging to Nelson Quintanilla. Quintanilla's phone bills showed that, on July 27, the day after the theft, he began a journey northward from Florida, arriving in New Jersey on July 28, shortly before the abandoned tractor-trailer was found.

Of the four uncharged crimes at issue in this case, three involved the recipients of defendant's phone calls. Two were offered by the People to prove that Gotay's truck bays at 530 Duncan Avenue were used as part of a fencing operation.

Thus, the People proved that cargo stolen from trailers had been received at Gotay's facility in December 2000, and again in December 2003 (some five months after the crime with which defendant was charged); there was no evidence connecting defendant to either of these two incidents. The People also proved that, in 1996, Quintanilla had been defendant's accomplice in the theft of another trailer. The fourth uncharged crime did not involve either Gotay or Quintanilla: The People proved that defendant had stolen a trailer in April 2000, working with accomplices not connected by any evidence to this case.

Evidence of all four incidents was admitted over defendant's objection under Molineux. A jury convicted defendant of grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property, and the Appellate Division affirmed, with two Justices dissenting. An Appellate Division Justice granted leave to appeal, and we now affirm.

II.

The rule of Molineux is familiar: Evidence of uncharged crimes is inadmissible where its only purpose is to show bad character or propensity towards crime (People v Alvino, 71 NY2d 233, 241 [1987]). The rule, we have explained, "is based on policy and not on logic" (People v Allweiss, 48 NY2d 40, 46 [1979]). It may be logical to conclude from a defendant's prior crimes that he is inclined to act criminally, but such evidence "is excluded for policy reasons because it may induce the jury to base a finding of guilt on collateral matters or to convict a defendant because of his past" (Alvino, 71 NY2d at 241). However, "[w]hen evidence of uncharged crimes is relevant to some issue other than the defendant's criminal disposition, it is generally held to be admissible on the theory that the probative value will outweigh the potential prejudice to the accused" (Allweiss, 48 NY2d at 47). A commonly used, though non-exhaustive, list names five so-called Molineux exceptions --i.e., purposes for which uncharged crimes might be relevant: "to show (1) intent, (2) motive, (3) knowledge, (4) common scheme or plan, or (5) identity of the defendant" (Alvino, 71 NY2d at 241-242; see also, e.g., People v Ventimiglia, 52 NY2d 350, 359 [1981]; Molineux, 168 NY at 293). Still, even if technically relevant for one of these or some other legitimate purpose, Molineux evidence will not be admitted if it "is actually of slight value when compared to the possible prejudice to the accused" (Allweiss, 48 NY2d at 47).

Applying these principles to this case, we conclude that the evidence relating to Gotay's fencing operation and to the crime committed in 1996 by defendant and Quintanilla was admissible. Evidence of the crime committed by defendant in April 2000 was not.

As to the evidence of Gotay's fencing operation, the issue is easy: This was not Molineux evidence at all. The point of Molineux is to prevent a jury from convicting a defendant because of his criminal propensity. Evidence of two criminal transactions in which defendant was not involved could show nothing about his propensity. The evidence was relevant to the case: It showed that a business defendant called in the hours immediately after the theft was one where stolen goods could be disposed of, and it thus supported an inference that defendant at that moment needed a fence's services.

The evidence of the 1996 crime, however, does present a Molineux issue, for that crime involved defendant as well as Quintanilla, and could have led a jury to infer that defendant had a propensity for crime. Still, it was not an abuse of discretion to admit the evidence (see People v Dorm, 12 NY3d 16, 19 [2009]). The predicate for its admission was evidence showing that defendant called Quintanilla shortly after the theft; that Quintanilla traveled from Florida to New Jersey beginning the next day; and that Quintanilla arrived in northern New Jersey not long before the discovery of the stolen trailer, with a tractor attached, on a highway in the vicinity. Abandonment of the tractor-trailer (unless the ...


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