EvidenceProf Blog

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

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Make Me Whole, Take 11: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Finds No Problem With Exclusion Of Victim's Conviction

I have done ten prior posts (hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here) about how Minnesota courts have completely botched their analysis of Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1). In my most recent post on the subject, I noted how Minnesota courts have made it so that a prior felony conviction that is not more than ten years old will (almost) always be admissible against a criminal defendant, regardless of whether the underlying crime has anything to do with witness honesty. So, what happens when it is a criminal defendant who wants to impeach a witness for the prosecution (and specifically the victim) under Rule 609(a)(1)? Let's look at the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Meeks, 2012 WL 4052371 (Minn.App. 2012), to see Minnesota's latest miscarriage of justice.

In Meeks

Sam Meeks and two accomplices broke into an apartment and robbed a family of three at gunpoint. Police arrested Meeks hours later in a stolen car, and one of the victims, who recognized Meeks from prison, identified him as one of the robbers. The state charged Meeks with two counts of first-degree burglary, two counts of first-degree aggravated robbery (one for each adult victim), and three counts of second-degree assault (one for each victim). A jury found Meeks guilty.

J.B. was one of the victims of the robbery, and he had a prior conviction for failure to register as a sex offender. The trial court precluded Meeks from impeaching J.B. with evidence of this conviction, and this decision formed the partial basis for Meeks' appeal.

Meeks argued that the admissibility of this conviction should be assessed under the same five factors considered when the prosecution seeks to impeach a criminal defendant:

(1) the impeachment value of the prior crime, (2) the date of the conviction and the defendant's subsequent history, (3) the similarity of the past crime with the charged crime (the greater the similarity, the greater the reason for not permitting use of the prior crime to impeach), (4) the importance of defendant's testimony, and (5) the centrality of the credibility issue.

The Court of Appeals of Minnesota disagreed, finding that these

factors are directed at managing the jury's perception of a defendant's testimony, not a nondefendant witness's....We hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion by excluding evidence of J.B.'s failure-to-register conviction. The jury heard substantial evidence of J.B.'s criminal past and this evidence would have been merely cumulative with no apparent additional bearing on his credibility. The contested conviction (failure to register as a sex offender) did not arise from J.B.'s dishonesty; he had provided a valid registration address. The conviction resulted instead because he failed to include every place where he was living and did not disclose that he was not always present at the registered address....The district court acted within its discretion by excluding evidence of the conviction.

Hogwash! When a Minnesota court is deciding whether a conviction is admissible to convict a criminal defendant, it is irrelevant whether the prior crime has any bearing on the defendant's honesty as a witness because the conviction allows the jury to see the "whole person" of the defendant. And these courts conclude that this is the case despite the very real danger that the jury could misuse the prior conviction as propensity character evidence against the defendant.

But, when the defendant wants to use a prior conviction to impeach the alleged victim, with no allegation that the alleged victim engaged in any wrongdoing in connection with the crime charged, all of a sudden the court cares about how much bearing the prior crime has on the victim's honesty as a witness? Like so many decisions made by Minnesota courts in this context, this conclusion makes no sense.



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