EvidenceProf Blog

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

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jumping To Conclusions: Northern District Of Illinois Quickly Deems Plaintiff's Robbery Conviction Inadmissible Under Rule 609(a)(1)

Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1) provides that

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.

In turn, Federal Rule of Evidence 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, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

Sometimes, when a part seeks to admit (or exclude) evidence of a prior conviction for impeachment purposes, you get a great court opinion that really digs into the probative value and unfair prejudice of the subject conviction. Other times, you get an opinion like the recent opinion of the United States DIstrict Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Blackwell v. Kalinowski, 2011 WL 1557542 (N.D.Ill. 2011).

In Kalinowski,

According to the allegations in the complaint, in the early morning hours of October 17, 2007, plaintiff Vincent Blackwell (“Blackwell”) was seated in the passenger seat of a legally parked car. Plaintiff Angela Ford (“Ford”), who owns the car, had gone into a nearby house. At that time, the individual defendants, who are or were Chicago police officers, approached the car and ordered Blackwell to get out. They searched Blackwell and the car, but found no contraband. Defendants nevertheless arrested Blackwell, and seized the car. At the police station, Blackwell alleges that he was shown bags containing what appeared to be a controlled substance. When Blackwell protested that he did not have any drugs on him, defendants replied, “You do now.” Blackwell was charged with felony drug offenses and traffic charges, and spent two months in jail. After Blackwell prevailed at a suppression hearing, the prosecution dismissed the charges against him. Blackwell alleges that as a result of the defendant officers' conduct, he sustained injuries, humiliation, and indignities, and suffered great emotional pain and suffering. Plaintiffs' complaint alleges claims of false arrest, unconstitutional search of the car, and a state law claim for malicious prosecution.

Before trial, Blackwell moved to preclude the defendants from impeaching him through evidence of his 1998 conviction for robbery, which led to him being incarcerated for ten years. In granting the motion, the Northern District of Illinois simply concluded that

admission under Rule 609(a)(1) is subject to Rule 403, which excludes evidence when its potential for unfair prejudice substantially outweighs its probative value....Defendants have not demonstrated that Blackwell's 1998 robbery conviction is probative in this case or relevant to Blackwell's credibility. Therefore, the Court finds that the 1998 conviction has minimal probative value. Moreover, the Court finds that the danger that Blackwell's prior conviction may cause unfair prejudice substantially Outweighs any probative value the 1998 conviction offers....Based on the foregoing, defendants are barred from introducing evidence of the 1998 conviction at trial.

Now, I'm not saying that this conclusion was incorrect, but I find the court's paucity of analysis disturbing. Unlike crimes of violence, property crimes are not thought to be lacking in probative value as a general proposition. A lot depends on the circumstances. Was the robbery committed primarily through force or primarily through deception? The court's opinion did not address this issue. 

Moreover, prior crimes become more prejudicial as they become more similar to the lawsuit at issue. Sure, Blackwell's prior conviction was prejudicial in the general sense, but was there a reason why Blackwell's conviction was prejudicial in this specific case? Did the robbery involve drugs? Were the same police officers involved? Again, the court's curt conclusion skipped any detailed analysis. 

Finally, the court did not even give lip service to the five factor test that governs the issue.



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Fascinating ruling, given the likelihood that the conviction would be admitted in a criminal case based on similar facts (and with a more rigorous standard for admission). I have to speak up for the court here though. As you know, I think all courts should bypass the 5 factor (Mahone) test, and have attempted to write that test into obscurity – see 42 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 289 – due to its inherent and obvious flaws. (Of course, with limited success.) Part of my motivation is that when Rule 609’s text is applied, as opposed to the five factor judicial interpretation of that text (from Mahone), exclusion is a more likely result (which I think is the closest reading of Congressional intent in enacting the Rule). The five factor test skews the analysis toward admissibility and it is probably no coincidence that in cases where it is not used, as here, exclusion is a more likely result.

Posted by: Jeff Bellin | May 2, 2011 1:19:20 PM

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