Law School Case Brief
Wilson v. Williams - 182 F.3d 562 (7th Cir. 1999)
Even if a ruling on a motion in limine is unconditional, it resolves only the arguments actually presented. That is clear from Fed. R. Evid. 103(a)(1), which requires a litigant to state a specific ground for an objection to evidence; grounds not presented cannot be raised later, else both judge and adversary are sandbagged and preventable errors occur.
Plaintiff Jackie Wilson was incarcerated in a county jail after being convicted for killing a police office. Wilson filed a lawsuit in federal district court against defendant James Williams, a prison guard, alleging that Williams attacked him without provocation and inflicted serious injuries, in violation of 42 U.S.C. S. § 1983. Williams contended that Wilson was the aggressor and that the force used in defense was reasonable under the circumstances. Williams filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted. Wilson appealed, and the appellate court reversed, holding that the conflicting stories had to be presented to a jury. After a trial ended in a verdict for Williams, the appellate court again reversed because of errors in the jury instructions. Before the second trial, Wilson filed a motion in limine asking the trial judge to prevent Williams from informing the jury of Wilson's crime. Wilson recognized that his criminal history could be used to impeach him because his crime called into question his willingness to be an honest witness. The judge denied the motion in limine. At trial, Wilson's counsel mentioned the conviction in his opening statement. Williams' counsel proceeded during trial to invoke the conviction in inflammatory ways, such as repeatedly calling Wilson a "cop killer." Wilson did not object during trial, relying on the ruling on the motion in limine to preserve the issue for appeal. A jury again rendered a verdict for Williams. On appeal, a panel of the appellate court affirmed the judgment for Williams. The appellate court then heard the case en banc to decide whether an objection at trial always was necessary after a pretrial ruling that evidence will be admitted.
Could Wilson rely on the ruling on the motion in limine to preserve the issue for appeal despite not objecting during trial?
On appeal, the court affirmed the judgment for Williams. The court ruled that Williams' counsel misused the evidence allowed by the motion in limine. However, the court ruled that Wilson's lack of objection to the misuse during the trial meant that the issue had not been preserved for appellate review. The court explained that a definitive ruling in limine preserved an issue for appellate review, without the need for later objection—but that was just a presumption, subject to variation by the trial judge, who could indicate that further consideration was in order. Moreover, the court explained, issues about how the evidence was used at trial, as opposed to yes-or-no questions about admissibility, frequently required attention at trial, so that failure to object meant forfeiture. By failing to object at trial, Wilson forfeited the opportunity to raise the issue on appeal.
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