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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Make Me Whole, Take 4: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Calls Out Supreme Court Of Minnesota Over "Whole Person" Approach To Impeachment

Wow! I have railed against Minnesota's "whole person" approach to the felony conviction impeachment rule on several occasions, with my my most recent post on the topic coming a few days ago. Well, it appears that someone agrees with me. That someone? The Court of Appeals of Minnesota in its recent opinion in State v. Peters, 2009 WL 4795971 (Minn.App. 2009).

In Peters, Melvin Peters was convicted of third-degree burglary. At trial, after Peters testified, the trial court permitted the prosecution to impeach Peters through evidence of his prior felony conviction for violating an order for protection obtained against him by D.H., the same person whose home Peters allegedly burglarized. On appeal, Peters claimed that the trial court admitted this conviction in violation of Minnesota Rule of Evidence 404(a), which states that Evidence of a person’s character or a trait of character is not admissible for the purpose of proving action in conformity therewith on a particular occasion."  

The Court of Appeals of Minnesota, however, noted that evidence of the conviction could have been admissible under Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1), which states that:

For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness, evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect.

So, according to the Court of Appeals, how much probative value did the conviction have for impeachment purposes? Its answer: "None." According to the court, 

Under a strict approach to rule 609(a)(1)..., it is not readily apparent that the crime of violation of an order for protection has any impeachment value. We strain to imagine how such a conviction can reflect on the likelihood that a witness will testify truthfully.

So the court reversed, right? Wrong. The appellate court proceeded to find that it could not

fault the district court for allowing this impeachment evidence because Minnesota generally has chosen to follow an impeachment rule that likely is at odds with rule 609(a)(1). In St. Paul v. DiBucci, 304 Minn. 97, 1000, 229 N.W.2d 507, 508 (1975), a case decided before the adoption of the code of evidence, the supreme court held that the rationale for allowing evidence of a prior conviction for impeachment is that the jury is entitled to see the "whole person" of the witness. That certainly appears to be a character-evidence rationale, for it invites the jury to see the witness as a criminal who committed a previous crime, or maybe crimes, and has done so again. In contrast,  rule 609 permits the jury to see a "limited person," that is, a person who has committed a crime that logically and reasonably shows something of the person's ability, capacity, or disposition for truth telling. Despite our view, DiBucci remains the law in Minnesota, and Peters's prior conviction of violation of an order for protection shows something of his "whole person" and does not run afoul of that law. The district court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the prior conviction into evidence for impeachment.

I will say it again. Wow! The Court of Appeals of Minnesota called out the Supreme Court of Minnesota. It held that the "whole person" approach is at odds with Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1). And it held that by using this approach, Minnesota courts are improperly allowing for the admission of propensity character evidence. And you know what? It was absolutely right. Let's hope that the Minnesota Supremes finally realized that the emperor has no clothes and repudiates DiBucci and the "whole person" approach.

-CM 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/12/mn-609state-v-petersnot-reported-in-nw2d-2009-wl-4795971minnapp2009.html

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