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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Make Me Whole, Take 5: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Issues Another Ridiculous Opinion Under "Whole Person" Impeachment Theory

I have done a couple of previous posts (herehere, here, and here) about Minnesota's wrongheaded "whole person" approach to felony conviction impeachment, and I am going to continue posting about it until Minnesota courts abandon this horribly misguided approach. The latest example of Minnesota's miscarriage of justice is the opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. James, 2010 WL 2899115 (Minn.App. 2010).

In James, Gary James was convicted of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. Before trial, the district court had granted the state's request to impeach James with evidence of a November 28, 2000 conviction of felon in possession of a firearm if he chose to testify at trial. After he was convicted, James appealed, claiming, inter alia, that this ruling constituted prejudicial error.

The Court of Appeals of Minnesota found that, pursuant to the opinion of the Supreme Court of Minnesota in State v. Jones, 271 N.W.2d 534, 538 (Minn. 1978), the district court had to determine the admissibility of the conviction under Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609 with reference to five factors:

(1) the impeachment value of the prior crime; (2) the date of the conviction and the defendant's subsequent history; (3) the similarity of the past crime with the charged crime; (4) the importance of defendant's testimony; and (5) the centrality of the credibility issue.

In analyzing the first factor, basically every court analyzes how much bearing the prior crime has on witness (dis)honesty. In these courts, the first factor would militate against admission of a conviction for being a prior felon in possession of a firearm because it has little to no bearing on witness (dis)honesty.

Minnesota courts, however, do not follow this approach. Instead, in State v. Brouillette, 286 N.W. 2d 702, 707 (Minn. 1979), the Supreme Court of Minnesota found that "[j]ust because a crime is not directly related to truth or falsity does not mean that evidence of the conviction has no impeachment value." The court then explained "that impeachment by prior crime aids the jury by allowing it 'to see 'the whole person' and thus to judge better the truth of his testimony.'" In other words, according to Minnesota courts, any felony conviction, regardless of whether it has any relation to truth or falsity, has impeachment value, making the first factor (almost) always favor admission.

This is ridiculous, and James argued as much, claiming that "Minnesota courts have come to accept that conviction of any crime bears on credibility under the 'whole person' concept, yielding the result that the first factor 'always weighs in the state's favor." The Court of Appeals of Minnesota didn't even bother addressing the merits of this argument, instead glibly concluding 

that under caselaw firmly establishing the "whole person" concept and its relationship to credibility, the first factor does not weigh against admissibility. While appellant's prior conviction does not appear to provide much illumination regarding the truth of what he might have testified to, a crime need not involve truth or falsity to have impeachment value under the "whole person" rationale. 

Under the second factor, the court found that James' prior conviction was almost eight years before the charged offense, which militated against admissibility. Conversely, the court found that the conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm was not at all similar to the charge of criminal sexual conduct, making the third factor cut in favor of admissibility (because there was little danger that the jury would misuse the conviction as propensity character evidence).

This left the court with the fourth and fifth factors and another ridiculous aspect of Minnesota precedent.  According to the court, 

The fourth and fifth Jones factors may be analyzed together....

It is undisputed that credibility was a central issue in this case....The supreme court has held that where credibility is a central issue in the case, the fourth and fifth Jones factors weigh in favor of admitting a prior conviction....Therefore, the fourth and fifth Jones factors weigh in favor of admissibility.

Again, this is not the way that most courts analyze these factors. Instead, most courts find that these factors counterbalance in most cases. If the defendant's testimony is very important, which it usually is, the fourth factor cuts against admissibility of the defendant's prior conviction because the defendant might choose not to testify in the event that the prosecution could impeach him. Conversely, if the defendant's testimony is very important, his credibility is also a central issue in the case, meaning that the fifth factor favors admissibility because the conviction as increased probative value for impeachment purposes. On the other hand, if a defendant is charged with grand theft auto and the only question at trial is the value of the car that the defendant stole, his testimony would not be very important but his credibility also wouldn't be a central issue, meaning that factors four and five would still cancel each other out.

But except in rare cases such as this latter example, factors four and five will always favor admission in Minnesota. And, as noted, factor one will always favor admission in Minnesota under the "whole person" approach. Thus, three out of the five factors will always favor admission in Minnesota. The appellate court in James found that the district court did not commit error "[b]ecause the majority of the Jones factors weigh in favor of admissibility." Under Minnesota law, though, that will almost always be the case.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/07/mn-609--state-of-minnesota-respondent-v-gary-james-appellant----nw2d------2010-wl-2899115minnapp2010.html

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