In Tennessee criminal proceedings, character evidence is not generally admissible to prove that a defendant acted in conformity with a character trait. So the State would not be allowed to introduce evidence of gang affiliation to show that a defendant, as a gang member, is likely to be guilty of the types of crimes that gang members generally commit. However, evidence of gang affiliation may be admissible if it is relevant to some specific issue (other than just being introduced to impeach the defendant's character).
In the recent Tennessee case of State v. Guerrero, M2010-00851-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. 7-25-2011), the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the trial court that evidence of gang affiliation was probative of motive and intent and therefore admissible.
The Defendant in that case was convicted of two counts of first degree murder. The Defendant, along with two other men, had been in a vehicle from which a co-defendant had fired a weapon into another vehicle. Two people in the target vehicle were killed as a result. Earlier in the evening, the Defendant and co-defendants had been at a party at a Nashville National Guard Armory. A fight had erupted at the party, ostensibly between members of rival gangs. The Defendant, during an interview with the police, told police that he and one co-defendant were members of a gang called "Vikings" and that the other co-defendant was a member of a gang called "Gangster Disciples." The Defendant and co-defendants were "folk" with each other. They had targeted the vehicle in which the victims were killed because they believed they had seen members of a rival gang get into that vehicle at the Armory.
The Defense at trial sought to exclude the Defendant's statements of gang affiliation as irrelevant and inadmissible character evidence. However, the trial court and the Court Criminal Appeals found that the statements regarding the Defendant's gang affiliation were relevant to help prove his motive and intent as an accomplice to fellow gang members in targeting and attacking victims who they believed to be rival gang members.
For more information on when and how character evidence may be admissible in a criminal trial, contact Hindman & Associates.