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Friday, September 5, 2008

Impeachable Offenses?: Why Civil Parties in Quasi-Criminal Cases Should Be Treated Like Criminal Defendants Under the Felony Impeachment Rule

Colin Miller
John Marshall Law School

With one exception, every Federal Rule of Evidence dealing with propensity character evidence or evidence which can be misused as propensity character evidence makes it either: (a) as difficult to admit such evidence in civil trials as it is in criminal trials, or (b) more difficult to admit such evidence in civil trials than it is in criminal trials. The "mercy rule" falls into this latter category as it allows criminal defendants to inject the issue of character into their trials while a similar luxury is not afforded to civil parties. Before 2006, however, a substantial minority of courts extended the "mercy rule" to civil parties in quasi-criminal cases because they were in most respects similar to criminal cases. Congress finally shut the door to this practice based upon the serious risks of prejudice, confusion, and delay that propensity character evidence engenders.

These same risks, however, support treating civil parties in quasi-criminal cases the same as criminal defendants under the felony impeachment rule. That rule, Rule 609(a)(1), makes it much more difficult for courts to exclude the felony convictions of civil parties than it is for them to exclude the felony convictions of testifying criminal defendants. It is thus the only Federal Rule of Evidence which makes it easier to admit evidence which can be misused as propensity character evidence in civil trials than it is in criminal trials. Courts should correct this anomaly by treating civil parties in quasi-criminal cases the same as criminal defendant under the Rule. [Mark Godsey]

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