Saturday, June 14, 2008
Sunshine State Split: Recent Case Reveals Split Among Florida Courts Over "False Reporting Exception" To Impeachment Rule
The recent opinion of the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District, in Washington v. State, 2008 WL 2356672 (Fla.App. 4 Dist. 2008), reveals some interesting distinctions between impeachment under the Florida Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Evidence. In Washington, Aaron Washington was convicted of carjacking with a firearm and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Testimony, including testimony by the alleged victim, revealed that the victim was a drug-dealer who entered into a drug deal with Washington. During that deal, Washington allegedly took the drugs without paying for them, struck the victim repeatedly with a firearm, and with the help of two accomplices extracted him from his automobile, and stole it. The alleged victim subsequently reported the crime, but omitted details about the drug deal. This wasn't the first time that the alleged victim had been less than forthcoming in dealing with the police. In an unrelated incident, the alleged victim lent his car to a friend, who became involved in a hit-and-run accident, prompting the alleged victim to file a false police report that the car had been stolen. The jury, however, never heard this evidence because the trial judge granted the prosecution's motion to exclude this evidence, and its exclusion prompted Washington's appeal.
The District Court of Appeal first noted a distinction between the Florida Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Evidence. While Federal Rule of Evidence 608(b) allows a party to cross-examine a witness about specific acts of untruthfulness (although these acts can't be proven through extrinsic evidence), the Florida Rules of Evidence contain no similar provision. Instead, Florida merely has Section 90.610 of the Florida Statutes, which is a counterpart to Federal Rule of Evidence 609, and which allows for impeachment of witnesses through evidence of prior convictions (It should be noted, however, that these rules are quite different; for instance, Federal Rule of Evidence 609(d) allows for impeachment of witnesses through evidence of juvenile adjudications in some cases while Section 90.610(1)(b) per se prohibits such impeachment).
Because the alleged victim was not convicted of a crime in connection with the prior false police report, he thus could not be impeached under Section 90.610, which would have seemed to foreclose the appeal. But, as the District Court of Appeal noted, the District Court of Appeal of Florida, First District created a "false reporting exception" to Section 90.610, under which witnesses can be cross-examined about false reports notwithstanding the plain language of the Florida statutes based upon recognition of a long line of authority from Florida courts allowing for such impeachment. See, e.g., Jaggers v. State, 536 So.2d 321, 327 (Fla.App. 2 Dist. 1988). The Fourth Circuit in Washington, however, noted that the First Circuit rejected this exception and then indicated that it would join that court in "respectfully declining" to adopt the Second District's "false reporting exception."
My take on the situation is that the Florida courts are free to read their state's statutes as they see fit. However, I see a potential problem for the First and Fourth Districts based upon the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973), which held that a state cannot apply its evidence laws in a manner that denies a criminal defendant a fair trial in accord with traditional and fundamental standards of due process. In Chambers, one of the evidence laws applied in such a manner was, as in Washington, a law preventing the defendant from impeaching a witness. Because both the Federal Rules of Evidence and, as far as I know, most if not all state rules of evidence besides Florida's would have allowed Washington to impeach the alleged victim, I can see a solid argument under Chambers that Florida courts must adopt a "false reporting exception" in cases where a criminal defendant seeks to impeach a key prosecution witness through evidence of a false police report by that witness.