EvidenceProf Blog

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

Monday, September 19, 2011

Character Of The Matter: Supreme Court Of Iowa Finds Trial Court Erred In Admitting Defendant's Harassment Conviction

Similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1), Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.609(a)(1) provides that

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....

A prior conviction is probative to the extent that jurors use it as evidence that the defendant might not be a trustworthy witness at trial. A prior conviction is prejudicial to the extent that jurors (mis)use it as propensity character evidence, i.e., to conclude, "Once a criminal, always a criminal." In State v. Redmond, 2011 WL 3962864 (Iowa 2011), the prosecution had argued that a defendant's prior conviction was admissible under Rule 5.609(a)(1) to prove, in effect, "Once a criminal, always a criminal." And because the trial court bought this reasoning, the Supreme Court of Iowa had to reverse.

In Redmond, Raymond Redmond was charged with indecent exposure. After Redmond testified, the prosecution sought to impeach him through his 2009 conviction for harassment. In claiming that evidence of the conviction was admissible under Rule 5.609(a)(1), the prosecutor argued,

I think the fact that the defendant has just recently been convicted of Harassment in the First Degree, I believe while intoxicated as well, goes to establish that this type of behavior—that the defendant's impeachment on this offense is proper....

I think it's clear that the defendant acts in an aggressive and sometimes obviously violent or threatening manner when intoxicated given that previous conviction....I was just going to raise it for the purpose of letting the jury know or making the jury aware that it exists.

Defense counsel objected that admission of the conviction would cause Redmond "extreme prejudice," but the trial judge overruled the objection. After Redmond was convicted, claiming that the trial court erred in allowing for the admission of his prior harassment conviction

The Supreme Court of Iowa agreed, first finding that the harassment conviction was lacking in probative value:

The conviction's probative value is limited to showing Redmond has intended to disturb or upset others. This showing may allow the jury to infer Redmond might disregard his duty to testify truthfully based upon his previous disregard of social communicative norms for self-gratification. But "crimes based on conduct that is either violent or disorderly are ordinarily not" as probative toward testimonial credibility.

The court then found that the danger that the jury would (mis)use the conviction as propensity character evidence was "obvious, so obvious it was the reason the State argued the harassment conviction should be admitted." Accordingly, the Supreme Court of Iowa found that the probative value of the conviction did not outweigh its prejudicial effect, meaning that evidence of the harassment conviction was improperly admitted and a reversal was required.



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