Fed. R. Evid. 609(a) provides: Rule 609. Impeachment by Evidence of Conviction of Crime (a) General Rule. For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness, evidence that he has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted if elicited from him or established by public record during cross-examination but only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which he was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to the defendant, or (2) involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.
John Barry Wong was charged with seventeen counts of violation of the mail fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1341 (1976), and two counts of violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-68 (1976 & Supp. V 1981). A jury found him guilty on all counts, and he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment followed by five years probation and ordered to make restitution of $100,000. Wong had previously been convicted at least twice -- a 1978 mail fraud conviction in a federal court in Pennsylvania and a 1981 Medicare fraud conviction in a federal court in Hawaii. At trial in this case, prior to putting his client on the stand, counsel for Wong moved to preclude use of these convictions for impeachment. The trial court stated that the probative value of the convictions did not outweigh their prejudicial effect. The trial court held, however, that since the two convictions were crimes involving dishonesty or false statement, under Fed. R. Evid. 609(a)(2) no balancing of prejudice against probative value was appropriate. Wong then took the stand; during his cross-examination the two convictions were introduced against him. Wong now attacks as erroneous the legal conclusion of the trial judge that crimen falsi under Fed. R. Evid. 609(a)(2) are admissible as impeachment without reference to their prejudicial effect.
Whether a district court has any discretion to exclude, as unduly prejudicial, evidence that a witness had previously been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty or false statement?
The Court held that the general balancing test of Fed. R. Evid. 403 was not applicable to impeachment by crimen falsi convictions under Fed. R. Evid. 609(a)(2). The Court reasoned that Fed. R. Evid. 403 was not designed to override more specific rules; rather it was designed as a guide for the handling of situations for which no specific rules have been formulated. Fed. R. Evid. 609(a) was such a specific rule. The Court concluded that judges were to have no discretion to exclude crimen falsi.