Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co.

490 U.S. 504, 109 S. Ct. 1981 (1989)

 

RULE:

Fed. R. Evid. 609(a)(1) requires a judge to permit impeachment of a civil witness with evidence of prior felony convictions regardless of ensuing unfair prejudice to the witness or the party offering the testimony.

FACTS:

The injured party was a prison inmate who was on a work release program when he was injured by the manufacturer's product. For purposes of impeachment at trial, the manufacturer produced evidence of the injured party's two prior felony convictions. The injured party contended that the trial court erred by denying his pretrial motion to exclude the impeaching evidence. The Court reversed the appellate court's judgment, holding that Fed. R. Evid. 609(a)(1) required a judge to permit impeachment of civil witnesses with evidence of prior felony convictions regardless of ensuing unfair prejudice to the witness or the party offering the testimony. The Court found that Rule 609(a)(1)'s exclusion of civil witnesses from its weighing language was a specific command that impeachment of witnesses like the injured party be admitted.

ISSUE:

Does Rule 609(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Evidence require a judge to let a civil litigant impeach an adversary's credibility with evidence of the adversary's prior felony convictions?

ANSWER:

Yes.

CONCLUSION:

Rule 609(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Evidence requires a judge to permit impeachment of a civil witness with evidence of prior felony convictions regardless of ensuant unfair prejudice to the witness or the party offering the testimony, given that (1) as shown by the Rule's legislative history, qualifying language in the Rule, which language states that evidence of felony convictions will be admitted for impeachment purposes if the court determines that its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect "to the defendant," must have been intended to apply only to criminal defendants, especially since a reading of that language as including civil defendants would impermissibly give civil defendants a protection denied to civil plaintiffs, and (2) the specific and mandatory provisions of Rule 609(a)(1), which thus exclude civil witnesses from the language of the Rule permitting the weighing of probative value against prejudicial effect, override the more general provisions of Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which gives judges discretionary authority to exclude otherwise probative evidence if its probative value is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice; thus, no error occurs when the jury in a products liability action learns through impeaching cross-examination that the plaintiff is a convicted felon. 

Click here to view the full text case and earn your Daily Research Points.