EvidenceProf Blog

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Unspecified Error, Tale 2: Supreme Court Of Minnesota Reverses Prior Precedent, Allows For Impeachment Through Unspecified Prior Convictions

About two years ago, I posted an entry about the opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Utter, 2009 WL 2926510 (Minn.App. 2009). In Utter, the defendant was on trial for violating a harassment restraining order, and the prosecution sought to impeach him through his prior conviction for violating an order of protection. The trial court ruled that the prosecution could impeach Utter by asking him whether he had a prior conviction but could not ask him any questions concerning the crime leading to that conviction or the circumstances surrounding that conviction. This is what is known as impeachment through an unspecified prior conviction.

After he was convicted, Utter appealed, claiming that impeachment through unspecified convictions is improper, and the Court of Appeals of Minnesota agreed, concluding that

The court's solution substantially reduced the risk of admitting a prior conviction to impeach that is identical or similar to the current conviction, namely that the jury may conclude that because the defendant “did it before, he most likely has done it again.” But the court's solution also discarded the measure by which the jury could assess the impeachment value of the prior conviction. The impeachment value of the prior crime varies with the nature of the offense....By shielding the jury from the nature of appellant's prior conviction, the district court allowed the jury to speculate that the prior crime had much greater impeachment value than it may actually have had.

In its recent opinion in State v. Hill, 2011 WL 3687535 (Minn. 2011), however, the Supreme Court of Minnesota overruled Utter and endorsed the idea of impeachment through unspecified prior convictions.

In Hill, Ronald Hill was charged with first-degree premeditated murder.  Previously, Hill was convicted of felony robbery in Illinois in 2008, and the trial

court weighed the probative impeachment value against the potential prejudicial effect in admitting the 2008 Illinois robbery conviction. The court concluded that, because of the similarity between the 2008 conviction and the aggravated robbery count in this case, the State could only present evidence that Hill was convicted of an unspecified felony in September 2008. The court prohibited the State from "referenc[ing] what the conviction was for" because of the potential prejudicial effect of the evidence.

After he was convicted, Hill appealed, claiming that the trial court erred by permitting the prosecution to impeach him through evidence that he had an unspecified prior conviction. His appeal eventually reached the Supreme Court of Minnesota, which held that the issue was governed by Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609(a), which provides that

For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness, evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect, or (2) involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.

And, according to the Minnesota Supremes, once the requirements of Rule 609(a) have

been satisfied, the rule does not further require the impeaching party to offer evidence about the details or nature of the conviction at the time of impeachment at trial. In other words, the nature of the prior conviction—whether it is a felony or crime of dishonesty—is relevant only to a court's preliminary determination of admissibility. The rule, therefore, does not prohibit impeachment through an unspecified felony conviction so long as the impeaching party can make a threshold showing that the underlying conviction falls into one of the two categories of admissible convictions under Rule 609(a).

The court then noted there used to be the common law doctrine of disqualification by infamy, under which convicted felons could not even testify and held that

Under both our approach to Rule 609(a) and the common law tradition, it is the general lack of respect for the law, rather than the specific nature of the conviction, that informs the fact-finder about a witness's credibility, at least with respect to convictions other than those involving dishonesty or false statements. In other words, any felony conviction is probative of a witness's credibility, and the mere fact that a witness is a convicted felon holds impeachment value.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota thus overruled Utter and concluded that its new approach was consisent with the approach in many jurisdictions:

Our research reveals that a number of other jurisdictions have addressed the admissibility of unspecified felony convictions for impeachment purposes. Fifteen jurisdictions grant trial courts discretion about whether to admit unspecified felony convictions as impeachment evidence: the First Circuit (United States v. Powell, 50 F.3d 94, 102 (1st Cir.1995)); the Tenth Circuit (United States v. Howell, 285 F.3d 1263, 1268–69 (10th Cir.2002)); Alaska (City of Fairbanks v. Johnson,723 P.2d 79, 84 (Alaska 1986)); Connecticut (State v. Geyer, 194 Conn.1, 480 A.2d 489, 498 (Conn.1984)); the District of Columbia (Goodwine v. United States, 990 A.2d 965, 968 (D.C.2010)); Florida (Fulton v. State, 335 So.2d 280, 284 (Fla.1976)); Idaho (State v. Shepherd, 94 Idaho 227, 486 P.2d 82, 84–85 (Idaho 1971)); Massachusetts (Commonwealth v. Ioannides, 41 Mass.App.Ct.904, 668 N.E.2d 845, 846 (Mass.App.Ct.1996)); Nevada (Plunkett v. State, 84 Nev.145, 437 P.2d 92, 93–94 (Nev.1968)); New Jersey (State v. Brunson, 132 N.J.377, 625 A.2d 1085, 1092–93 (N.J.1993)); New Mexico (State v. Williams, 76 N.M.578, 417 P.2d 62, 65 (N.M.1966)); New York (People v. Hayes, 97 N.Y.2d 203, 738 N.Y.S.2d 663, 764 N.E.2d 963, 966 (N.Y.2002)); Oregon (State v. Sims, 298 Or.360, 692 P.2d 575, 577 (Or.1984)); South Dakota ( State v. Means, 363 N.W.2d 565, 569 (S.D.1985)); and Washington (State v. Gomez,75 Wash.App. 648, 880 P.2d 65, 69–70 (Wash.Ct.App.1994)).

Four jurisdictions have gone as far as creating a per se rule confining impeachment to the mere fact of conviction and prohibiting the admissibility of any details about a prior conviction: Kentucky (Sebastian v. Commonwealth, 436 S.W.2d 66, 69 (Ky.1968)); Nebraska (State v. Olsan, 231 Neb.214, 436 N.W.2d 128, 136 (Neb.1989)); Wisconsin (Voith v. Buser, 83 Wis.2d 540, 266 N.W.2d 304, 306–07 (Wis.1978)); and Virginia (Harmon v. Commonwealth, 212 Va.442, 185 S.E.2d 48, 51 (Va.1971)).

Conversely, only

six jurisdictions prohibit impeachment by unspecified felony convictions: the Second Circuit (United States v. Estrada, 430 F.3d 606, 614–16 (2d Cir.2005); Illinois (People v. Cox, 195 Ill.2d 378, 254 Ill.Dec.720, 748 N.E.2d 166, 171 (Ill.2001)); Tennessee (State v. Galmore, 994 S.W.2d 120, 122 (Tenn.1999)); Maryland (Bells v. State, 134 Md.App. 299, 759 A.2d 1149, 1155 (Md.Ct.Spec.App.2000)); Michigan (People v. Van Dorsten, 409 Mich.942, 298 N.W.2d 421, 421 (Mich.1980)); and Utah (State v. Crawford, 60 Utah 6, 206 P. 717, 719 (Utah 1922)).



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