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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Impeachable Offenses: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Finds No Error Despite Plain Rule 806 Violation

Like its federal counterpartMinnesota Rule of Evidence 806 provides that

When a hearsay statement, or a statement defined in Rule 801(d)(2)(C), (D), or (E), has been admitted in evidence, the credibility of the declarant may be attacked, and if attacked may be supported, by any evidence which would be admissible for those purposes if declarant had testified as a witness. Evidence of a statement or conduct by the declarant at any time, inconsistent with the declarant's hearsay statement, is not subject to any requirement that the declarant may have been afforded an opportunity to deny or explain. If the party against whom a hearsay statement has been admitted calls the declarant as a witness, the party is entitled to examine the declarant on the statement as if under cross-examination.

A defendant is charged with possession of a firearm by an ineligible person, and the complainant doesn't testify at his trial. Her hearsay statement, however, is introduced at trial, but the trial court precludes the defendant from impeaching her. Surely the trial court's decision is error, if not reversible error, right? Not according to the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Craig, 2011 WL 6015031 (Minn.App. 2011).

In Craig, police responded to a call involving an alleged domestic disturbance between Andrew Craig and the complainant, S.Y. The police eventually found Craig in a car which had a backpack with a gun in it. Craig was charged with possession of a firearm by an ineligible person and claimed that S.Y. planted the gun in the backpack.

S.Y. was not available to testify at [Craig]'s trial. A Mounds View police investigator testified that he had contact with S.Y. to discuss the assault and that he made futile efforts to locate S.Y. prior to trial. On redirect examination, he was asked, without objection, whether S.Y. had told him about the nature of her relationship with [Craig]. The investigator responded, "That she did. You know, I think that they—if I remember correctly, that they had been involved, boyfriend, girlfriend." No further questions were asked on this point or about anything else discussed between the investigator and S.Y.

After S.Y.'s statement was introduced, Craig sought to impeach her through her 

prior burglary convictions in 2004, 2006, and 2007. The district court denied the motion, ruling that the prior-conviction evidence was not relevant. The district court asked defense counsel several times why S.Y.'s characterization of the relationship was relevant, especially since this was not a domestic-assault case. Defense counsel responded that the fact that S.Y. was lying on that point gave her motive to conceal the firearm without [Craig]'s knowledge.

The trial court precluded Craig from impeaching S.Y., and the Court of Appeals of Minnesota affirmed that ruling on appeal, finding that

Although [Craig] submits that prior-conviction evidence "certainly [would] have been admissible for impeachment purposes" had S.Y. testified, in fact, S.Y. did not testify, and the only statement made by S.Y. that was admitted at trial through another witness was that she characterized her relationship with appellant as having been "involved" as boyfriend and girlfriend. No hearsay evidence was admitted via the investigator that S.Y. specifically accused appellant of possessing the firearm. Therefore, there was no relevant hearsay statement admitted that created an opportunity for prior-conviction impeachment, and the district court did not err in excluding such evidence.

Huh? Rule of Evidence 806 plainly states that "[w]hen a hearsay statement... has been admitted in evidence, the credibility of the declarant may be attacked...by any evidence which would be admissible for those purposes if declarant had testified as a witness." And, pursuant to Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609, if S.Y. testified at trial, she could have been impeached through evidence of a qualifying conviction. In other words, defense counsel had it absolutely right and the Court of Appeals of Minnesota had it absolutely wrong.

Now, in fairness, the court was right that S.Y.'s statement wasn't especially important, but it was certainly relevant, which is why it was admissible. And the fact that it wasn't especially important merely goes to the issue of whether the trial court's error was harmless, not the issue of whether it was error as all. But that's not what the Court of Appeals of Minnesota held. It first held that the trial court committed no error and then held that "even if we were to conclude that the district court erred by excluding S.Y.'s prior convictions, that error was harmless because it is likely that the jury would have reached the same verdict had the impeachment evidence been admitted." 



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