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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Deal Or No Deal?: Supreme Court Of Vermont Finds That Statements Made During Plea Discussions Are Inadmissible To Impeach

In my mind, the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Vermont in State v. Amidon, 2008 WL 3982509 (Vt. 2008), clearly reached the correct conclusion in finding that statements made during plea discussions are not admissible to impeach a defendant at trial (barring a Mezzanatto waiver).  In Amidon, Seth Amidon was charged with sexual assault for having nonconsensual sexual intercourse with the alleged victim in July 2006 at her apartment in Bennington, Vermont.  The alleged victim and Amidon were friends who regularly had sexual intercourse with one another, and, at the time of his arrest, Amidon admitted having sexual intercourse with the alleged victim on the date in question, but claimed that the sex was consensual.

Amidon thereafter entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment but subsequently reached a plea agreement with the State.  After engaging in a full colloquy with Amdion, the trial court accepted his plea and ordered that a Presentence Investigation (PSI) report be conducted, reserving its decision as to whether to accept the sentencing recommendation until after reviewing the report.  In the course of conducting the PSI, an officer conducted a taped interview of Amidon, and when he asked him about what happened on the date of the alleged incident, Amidon replied,  "I...started kissing her and stuff like that. One thing led to another and she basically told me that she did not want to have sex with me. I never physically harmed her or nothing like that. She just kept telling me no, she didn't want to have sex with me. I didn't take no for an answer. That's how it ended up...."

The trial court declined to accept the recommended sentence, and Amidon was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.  Before the case went to trial, the State notified defense counsel of its intention to use this statement in its case-in-chief as well as to impeach defendant should he take the stand and testify that the victim consented to the sexual intercourse.  The trial court approved the former use, finding that

     "'if the defendant were to testify and during direct examination specifically contradict[ ] such statements and such statements bear directly on the elements of the charged offense.' The court further opined that '[the] statements would certainly seem to be impeaching evidence for [defendant] to testify that it was consensual.'"

Amidon thereafter chose not to testify at trial, and after he was convicted, he appealed, contending that the trial court's evidentiary ruling was in error.  The Supreme Court noted that it was faced with two issues on appeal.  The first was whether the record was insufficient for appellate review.  You see, in its 1984 opinion in Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38 (1984), the Supreme Court held that appellate review of a trial court's decision to allow the prosecution to impeach a defendant through evidence of his prior felony conviction under Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1) was unavailable because the defendant chose not to testify at trial.

The Supreme Court of Vermont noted that it had "thus far neither expressly adopted nor rejected Luce, at least in the context of the preservation of non-constitutional claims" and then "decline[d] to adopt the rule of Luce as governing the issue in th[e] case" before it.  Its main reason for doing so was that it found that it sat "in review not of a trial court's discretionary decision on a subtle evidentiary question requiring the careful fact-specific weighing of probative value verses prejudicial effect, but of a purely legal question as to whether a particular ruling is permissible generally under statutory and constitutional guarantees."

I strongly agree with this conclusion because I have just written an article on Rule 609(a)(1), which does indeed force a court to make subtle, discretionary (arbitrary?) decisions, and I have also written an article on the rule implicated by the Amidon case, Rule 410, which makes it absolutely clear whether statements made during plea discussions are admissible to impeach a defendant at trial. See Colin Miller, "Caveat Prosecutor," 32 New Eng. J. On Crim. & CIv. Confinement 209 (2006).

This leads to the second issue faced by the Supreme Court of Vermont, which was whether Amidon's statement was admissible to impeach him at trial.  It noted that the issue was governed by Vermont Rule of Evidence 410 (and Vermont Rule of Evidence 11(e)(5)), which states, inter alia, that "except as otherwise provided in this rule, evidence of the following is not...admissible against the defendant...who...was a participant in the plea discussions:...any statement made in the course of proceedings under Rule 11 of the Vermont Rules of Criminal Procedure."

The court noted that "the Reporter's Notes to the 1977 amendment to V.R.Cr.P. 11, 'makes clear the uniformity of the Vermont and Federal rules on this important question of admissibility.'"  The court then noted that the

     "legislative history of the 1975 amendments to F.R.Cr.P. 11 and F.R.E. 410 provides 'unusually clear' guidance as to whether statements made in connection with plea proceedings were intended to be used for impeachment purposes....[T]hat history shows that while crafting the 1975 amendments to F.R.Cr.P. 11 and F.R.E. 410, Congress debated whether statements made in the course of plea proceedings should be available for later admission to impeach a defendant....The Senate sought to specifically permit such use, while the House opposed the exception....The House view prevailed."

The Supreme Court of Vermont thus correctly viewed "this legislative history as conclusively demonstrative of Congress' intent to prohibit the use of statements falling under the general protection of F.R.Cr.P. 11 and F.R.E. 410 for impeachment," found that the trial court erred, and thus reversed and remanded.

-CM

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