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Old Chief v. United States

Supreme Court of the United States

October 16, 1996, Argued ; January 7, 1997, Decided

No. 95-6556.

Opinion

 [*174]   [***584]   [**647]  JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

 ] Subject to certain limitations, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) prohibits possession of a firearm by anyone with a prior felony conviction, which the Government can prove by introducing [****6]  a record of judgment or similar evidence identifying the previous offense. Fearing prejudice if the jury learns the nature of the earlier crime, defendants sometimes seek to avoid such an informative disclosure by offering to concede the fact of the prior conviction. The issue here is whether a district court abuses its discretion if it spurns such an offer and admits the full record of a prior judgment, when the name or nature of the prior offense raises the risk of a verdict tainted by improper considerations, and when the purpose of the evidence is solely to prove the element of prior conviction. 1 We hold that it does.

In 1993, petitioner, Old Chief, was arrested after a fracas involving at least one gunshot. The ensuing federal charges included not only assault with a dangerous weapon and using a [****7]  firearm in relation to a crime of violence but violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). ] This statute makes it unlawful for anyone "who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" to "possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm …." ] "[A]  [*175]  crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" is defined to exclude "any Federal or State offenses pertaining to antitrust violations, unfair trade practices, restraints of trade, or other similar offenses relating to the regulation of business practices" and "any State offense classified by the laws of the State as a misdemeanor and punishable by a term of imprisonment of two years or less." § 921(a)(20).

 The earlier crime charged in the indictment against Old Chief was assault causing serious bodily injury. Before trial, he moved for an order requiring the Government  [**648]  "to refrain from mentioning--by reading the Indictment, during jury selection, in opening statement, or closing argument--and to refrain from offering into evidence or soliciting any testimony from any witness regarding the prior criminal convictions of the Defendant, except to state that the [****8]  Defendant has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one (1) year." App. 6. He said that revealing the name and nature of his prior assault conviction would unfairly tax the jury's capacity  [***585]  to hold the Government to its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on current charges of assault, possession, and violence with a firearm, and he offered to "solve the problem here by stipulating, agreeing and requesting the Court to instruct the jury that he has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one (1) year." Id., at 7. He argued that the offer to stipulate to the fact of the prior conviction rendered evidence of the name and nature of the offense inadmissible under Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, the danger being that unfair prejudice from that evidence would substantially outweigh its probative value. He also proposed this jury instruction:

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519 U.S. 172 *; 117 S. Ct. 644 **; 136 L. Ed. 2d 574 ***; 1997 U.S. LEXIS 298 ****; 65 U.S.L.W. 4049; 45 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 835; 97 Fulton County D. Rep. 174; 97 Cal. Daily Op. Service 177; 97 Daily Journal DAR 277; 10 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 238

JOHNNY LYNN OLD CHIEF, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES

Prior History:  [****1]  ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

Disposition: 56 F.3d 75, reversed and remanded.

CORE TERMS

prior conviction, jurors, evidentiary, assault, stipulate, probative value, district court, convicted, prior offense, prejudicial, felony, unfair prejudice, punishable by imprisonment, unfairly, firearm, exceeding, admit, guilt, prior felony conviction, charged offense, one year, outweighed, propensity, serious bodily injury, relevant evidence, of Rule, concede, gun, danger of unfair prejudice, criminal conviction

Criminal Law & Procedure, Possession of Weapons, Unregistered Firearm, Elements, Weapons Offenses, General Overview, Standards of Review, Abuse of Discretion, Evidence, Evidence, Relevance, Preservation of Relevant Evidence, Exclusion & Preservation by Prosecutors, Use of Weapons, Commission of Another Crime, Criminal Offenses, Adjustments & Enhancements, Criminal History, Impeachment, Convictions & Other Criminal Process, Testimony, Credibility of Witnesses, Prior Conduct, Assault & Battery, Simple Offenses, Relevant Evidence, Crimes Against Persons, Exclusion of Relevant Evidence, Confusion, Prejudice & Waste of Time, Civil Procedure, Judicial Officers, Judges, Discretionary Powers, Admissibility, Character Evidence, Conduct Evidence, Prior Acts, Crimes & Wrongs, Trials, Burdens of Proof, Defense, Murder, Aggravated Murder