Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1) 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....
So, let's say that a plaintiff brings tort and constitutional claims against defendants. And let's say that the plaintiff has a prior child molestation conviction. Should the defendants be able to use evidence of that conviction to impeach the plaintiff? According to the recent opinion of the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia in Merritt v. Matheny, 2011 WL 4833043 (S.D.W.Va. 2011), the answer is "no."
Unfortunately, the court's opinion in Merritt is not chock full of details, but it appears that William Merritt brought battery and § 1983 violations claims against officials at Mount Olive Correctional Center based upon abuse that he suffered while incarcerated.
Before trial, Meritt filed a motion in limine to preclude the defendants from impeaching him through his prior conviction for child molestation. In response, the defendants cited to Myers v. Hyatt, 1991 U.S.App. LEXIS 16517 (4th Cir.1991), in which the Fourth Circuit
summarily rejected the Plaintiff–Prisoner's argument that his trial counsel was ineffective and that evidence of Myers' prior child molestation conviction was so inflammatory that it unduly prejudiced the jury and rendered the verdict unreliable.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, however, noted that this opinion was unpublished and that "no reasoning exist[ed] for the [Fourth Circuit]'s summary rejection of the appellant's assertions in Myers," and it did "not find it to be persuasive to the inquiry at hand." Instead, the court concluded
that under Rules 401 and 403, as well as under 609(a), the Plaintiff's convictions [we]re not relevant to his...tort and constitutional claims, and thus should be excluded. The convictions themselves [we]re not relevant to the Plaintiff's emotional damages. The convictions [we]re not crimes involving the Plaintiff's dishonesty or false swearing, and ha[d] low probative value under Rule 609 for impeachment purposes. Even if relevant in some way, under Rule 403, such evidence's prejudicial effect substantially outweigh[ed] any relevance of the conviction evidence.
The court thus granted Merritt's motion in limine.