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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Balancing Act: Court Of Appeals Of Iowa Uses Incorrect Reasoning In Upholding Trial Court's Impeachment Ruling

Like its federal counterpart, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.609(a)(1) provides that

For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness:

(1) Evidence that a witness other than the accused has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted, subject to rule 5.403, if the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year pursuant to the law under which the witness was convicted, and evidence that an accused has been convicted of such a crime shall be admitted if the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to the accused.

Meanwhile, like its federal counterpart, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.403 provides that

Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.

Based upon the interplay between these two rules, it is clear that the Court of Appeals of Iowa erred in its reasoning in its recent opinion in State v. Rose, 2010 WL 2598370 (Iowa.App. 2010), even though it might have reached the correct conclusion.

In Rose,  

Brittany Pladna left her two-year-old son with Sandy Rose. Sandy is the aunt of Johnathan Rose (Rose), who is the father of Pladna's son. Pladna and Rose were not on speaking terms on the date of this incident. Pladna returned with her sister Danielle and her friend Dymetri to Sandy's house to pick up her son. When she arrived at Sandy's house, Pladna found Rose's sister Krystal holding her son near Rose's mother, Monica, who was sitting in her car. This angered Pladna because she did not get along with Krystal or Monica.

Pladna exchanged heated words with Monica and Krystal and approached Krystal to retrieve her son. Seven individuals witnessed the events that followed, but their stories are inconsistent. However, it is clear from the record that at some point, Rose became involved in the fray. Pladna either fell or was knocked to the ground by Rose. Rose was charged with domestic abuse assault against Pladna. He claimed he acted with justification in that he acted to protect another person, his sister Krystal, from the use of unlawful force

At trial, Rose sought to impeach Pladna through evidence concerning her felony conviction for child endangerment, which resulted from her son having tested positive for illegal drugs. After he was convicted, Rose appealed, claiming that the district court erred by precluding him from impeaching Pladna through evidence of this conviction.

In response, the Court of Appeals of Iowa noted that

Our supreme court has advised trial courts to assess the probative value of admitting evidence of a prior conviction in relation to its likely prejudice by considering four non-exclusive factors: (1) the nature of the conviction; (2) the conviction's bearing on veracity; (3) the age of the conviction; and (4) its tendency to improperly influence the jury.

The Court of Appeals then rejected Rose's appeal, finding that

Rose sought to impeach Pladna with her 2007 conviction for child endangerment, a crime punishable by imprisonment in excess of one year. Rose argues on appeal that this evidence should have been admitted because it suggests that Pladna was not a credible witness and because it supports his assertion that Pladna was the aggressor in this incident, a disputed fact vital to his claim of justification. The child endangerment conviction stemmed from an incident in which Pladna's child tested positive for drugs. The district court properly weighed this evidence and determined that the nature of the crime of child endangerment had little bearing on the assault case in which the parties were involved, was not probative of veracity, and had a high tendency to improperly influence the jury. Although Pladna's conviction was fairly recent, the district court acted well within the range of its discretion in ruling that any probative value on credibility did not outweigh its tendency to confuse or inflame the jury. Admission of this evidence had a high propensity to lead to confusion of the issues, mislead the jury, or result in unfair prejudice. The nature of the conviction could lead the jury to consider whether Pladna was a fit parent and distract them from the real issue of whether the domestic abuse occurred. Evidence that Pladna's child had been exposed to a controlled substance could be highly prejudicial to her.

Let's start with the court's conclusion that "the district court acted well within the range of its discretion in ruling that any probative value on credibility did not outweigh its tendency to confuse or inflame the jury."  That's the wrong standard.  As noted, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.403 provides that

Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.

In other words, the court could not have excluded Pladna's conviction by finding that its probative value failed to outweigh its tendency to confuse or inflame the jury. It only could have excluded it if it found its probative value was substantially outweighed by its tendency to confuse or inflame the jury.

Second, let's look at the four factors mentioned by the court.  First, I don't see why the court found that the fact that the conviction had little bearing cut against admission. It is well established that if a prior conviction is similar to the crime charged, that cuts against admissibility because the jury could misuse the conviction as propensity character evidence. Second, the court was right that a conviction for child endangerment based on a child testing positive for drugs has little bearing on credibility as a witness.  Third, the court correctly found that the conviction was fairly recent, cutting in favor of admissibility.

Fourth, I don't get the point about the prior conviction leading the jury to consider whether Pladna was a fit parent and distracting from the issue of whether domestic abuse occurred. Undoubtedly, this is true, but it would be true for any conviction. If Pladna had a prior conviction for drug use, the jury might be confused and wonder whether she was a drug addict. If she had a prior conviction for robbery, the jury might be confused and wonder whether she was a robber.

Looking at the facts, I think that the district court was likely right in excluding Pladna's conviction, but the analysis employed by the Court of Appeals of Iowa sure leaves something to be desired.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/07/609--state-v-roseslip-copy-2010-wl-2598370-tableiowa-app2010.html

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