Saturday, December 11, 2010
Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a) provides that
For the purpose of attacking the character for truthfulness of a witness,
(1) evidence that a witness other than an accused has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted, subject to Rule 403, if the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under 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; and
(2) evidence that any witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted regardless of the punishment, if it readily can be determined that establishing the elements of the crime required proof or admission of an act of dishonesty or false statement by the witness.
In other words, evidence of a witness' prior conviction is only admissible to impeach him if the conviction is a felony conviction or a conviction for a crime of dishonesty or false statement. As the recent opinion of the Third Circuit in United States v. Castro, 2010 WL 4948946 (3rd Cir. 2010), makes clear, however, this limitation does not apply if the witness claims that he doesn't have a criminal past.
In Castro, Cesar Castro was convicted of one count of aggravated unlawful reentry after deportation. During his testimony at trial, Castro referred to his 1990 conviction for conspiring to sell cocaine and described it as "an agreement that was reached. They did not find me guilty. There was no trial. That was the only error in my life, that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The trial court thereafter allowed the prosecution to impeach Castro with evidence of his 2007 conviction for misdemeanor simple assault. After he was convicted, Castro appealed, claiming that evidence of this conviction was inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a), under which evidence of a witness' prior conviction is only admissible to impeach him if the conviction is a felony conviction or a conviction for a crime of dishonesty or false statement.
The Third Circuit disagreed, finding that Rule 609(a) did not apply because
In this case, evidence of the 2007 simple assault conviction contradicted a specific fact Castro testified about-that the 1990 conviction for conspiring to sell cocaine was his only violation of law. Therefore, the District Court did not abuse its discretion.