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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unspecified Error: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Notes Problems With Unspecified Conviction Impeachment

Like its federal counterpart, Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1) provides 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....

And, one of the factors that courts use to determine whether a conviction's probative value outweighs its prejucial effect is to look at how similar the prior conviction is to the crime charged (the greater the similarity, the greater the reason for not permitting use of the crime to impeach). But what if a court tries to reduce the prejudice of a similar prior conviction by ordering the prosecution to refer to the conviction only as a "felony" conviction, without identifying the underlying offense? That was the question addressed by the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in its recent opinion in State v. Hutchinson, 2010 WL 4825035 (Minn.App. 2010).

In Hutchinson, Emmett Hutchinson was convicted of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person and fifth-degree controlled-substance possession. After he was convicted, he appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred by allowing the prosecution to impeach him with evidence of his two prior felony controlled-substance convictions. Specifically, he claimed that the trial court erred by ordering the prosecution to refer to the priors only as "felony" convictions.

The Court of Appeals of Minnesota agreed, finding that, in State v. Utter, 773 N.W.2d 127 (Minn.App. 2009), 

"[t]he question before [the court] on appeal [was] whether the probative value of admitting evidence of an unspecified prior felony conviction outweighs its prejudicial effect so that the evidence is admissible under rule 609(a)(1)."...This court answered the question in the negative, holding that "the district court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of appellant's unspecified prior conviction."...The court reasoned that "[b]y shielding the jury from the nature of appellant's prior conviction, the district court allowed the jury to speculate that the prior crime had much greater impeachment value than it may actually have had."...Based on this precedent, the district court here abused its discretion by allowing the state to impeach Hutchinson with evidence of two unspecified felony convictions.

Nonetheless, the court still affirmed based upon its finding that this error by the district court was harmless.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/12/609a1-state-of-minnesota-respondent-v-emmett-benjamin-hutchinson-appellant-nw2d-2010-wl-4825035minnapp.html

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