Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1) provides that
The following rules apply to attacking a witness’s character for truthfulness by evidence of a criminal conviction:
(1) for a crime that, in the convicting jurisdiction, was punishable by death or by imprisonment for more than one year, the evidence:
(A) must be admitted, subject to Rule 403, in a civil case or in a criminal case in which the witness is not a defendant; and
(B) must be admitted in a criminal case in which the witness is a defendant, if the probative value of the evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to that defendant....
As the United States District Court for the District of Illinois noted in its recent opinion in Cefalu v. Village of Glenview, 2013 WL 5878603 (N.D.Ill. 2013), a district court has broad discretion in determining whether evidence of prior convictions is admissible under Rule 609(a)(1). That said, I still find the court's opinion in Cefalu to be baffling.In Cefalu,
According to the allegations in the complaint, on April 15, 2011, plaintiff was a passenger in a car traveling on the 3700 block of E. Lake Avenue, Glenview, Illinois. The defendants “stopped, detained, and seized the vehicle” without plaintiff's consent, without a warrant, and without probable cause. Officer Horn searched the car and plaintiff's belongings, which consisted of a suitcase, black bag, and purse. Horn transported plaintiff to the police station where she was imprisoned. At the station, no contraband was found in plaintiff's belongings. Felony drug charges were then brought against plaintiff. Plaintiff prevailed at a hearing on a motion to dismiss, and the criminal charges were dismissed on July 29, 2011. Plaintiff now asserts two claims. The first is a Fourth Amendment claim under § 1983. The second is a pendent state law claim for malicious prosecution. She is seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.
The driver of the car was Ronald Allen, who had two prior convictions for drug possession and one prior conviction for felony possession of a weapon. The plaintiff filed a pretrial motion in limine seeking to have the district court deem evidence of these convictions for impeachment purposes. The court granted that motion in part and denied the motion in part, holding as follows:
Here, we find that Allen's prior drug convictions are highly probative to the issues in this case because his credibility is a central issue. Aside from plaintiff and defendants, Allen is the only witness who was present at the time of the traffic stop that led to plaintiff's arrest, and Allen's testimony will undoubtedly conflict with the testimony of the defendants. Therefore, under the “substantial hurdle” of Rule 403, Allen's credibility is of sufficient probative value to outweigh the risks of prejudice....However, we also agree with plaintiff that Allen's felony possession of a weapon conviction could unnecessarily inflame the jury. Therefore, we will only allow defendants to use the drug convictions for impeachment, and any reference to the weapons conviction will be barred.
Really? Convictions for simple possession of drugs aren't generally thought to have much bearing on credibility, so I don't see a justification for the court's conclusion that Allen's drug convictions were highly probative. Meanwhile, I'm not sure why Allen's conviction for felony possession of a weapon would inflame the jury given that the trial had nothing to do with weapons or violence. Conversely, I could easily see the jury being unduly influenced by Allen's prior drug convictions given the nature of the case before it.