Witness “impeachment” refers to the process of attacking a witness’s credibility and the accuracy of their testimony at trial. The Federal Rules of Evidence and the New Jersey Rules of Evidence both allow the impeachment of a witness’s credibility by use of their prior convictions. However, when the witness is a defendant testifying in their own trial, there are specific rules that apply to the State’s use of their prior convictions.
Under the N.J.R.E. 609, the use of a prior conviction is limited “[i]f, on the date the trial begins, more than ten years have passed since the witness’s conviction for a crime or release from confinement for it, whichever is later.” The rule also states that when a conviction is ten years remote, it “is admissible only if the court determines that its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect, with the proponent of the evidence having the burden of proof.”
On December 27, 2021 the Supreme Court of New Jersey decided in State v. Tywaun S. Hedgespeth that a lower court’s ruling, allowing the use of Defendant’s prior convictions for impeachment purposes was not harmless error.
The case against Defendant arose from law enforcement surveillance conducted on a street corner in Newark which resulted in the apprehension of a few men who were loitering in the area. During the surveillance, two officers reported seeing what they thought to be a gun on the waist of the Defendant. After calling for backup, law enforcement personnel arrested the loitering men and a gun was found at the scene. The Defendant was searched and the police seized drugs from his person. Although the gun and magazine were later tested, no fingerprints were found on either. The Defendant was indicted for various charges relating to unlawful possession of a weapon and the possession of controlled dangerous substances.
During trial, the officers testified about the circumstances of the surveillance. At the close of the State’s presentation of their case, the Defense advised the court that they required a N.J.R.E. 609 ruling to help the Defendant reach a decision on whether or not to testify. Although the Defense and the State agreed that the Defendant’s 2001 and 2005 convictions were too remote for impeachment purposes under N.J.R.E. 609, the trial court permitted the State to use those convictions for impeachment if the Defendant was to testify. As a result of this ruling, the Defendant chose not to testify. In August of 2017, the jury found the Defendant guilty on all counts.
The Defendant appealed this conviction on multiple grounds, including the trial court’s harmful error in permitting impeachment of the Defendant with his prior convictions.
The Court concluded that the trial court’s N.J.R.E. 609 ruling constituted harmful error. In order to determine whether admission of evidence constitutes harmless error, the court must consider whether the purported error “is of such a nature as to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result”.
Here, the jury was not afforded the opportunity to hear the Defendant’s testimony and that could have produced an unjust result because the Defendant otherwise could have more forcefully challenged the detectives’ credibility as to whether they actually observed a gun on his waistband. The Court noted that without his testimony, the Defendant was only able to cast doubt on the officers’ accounts through cross-examination. Also, the Defendant was unable to effectively offer a counter theory of the case and give the jury the opportunity to consider his demeanor and credibility in delivering his testimony.
As a result, the Court decided that the erroneous ruling from the trial court warranted a reversal of the judgment against the Defendant and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
Although courts may permit the use of prior convictions to impeach a testifying defendant, such allowances may constitute a harmful error that produces an unjust result.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Jersey City or the surrounding Hudson county and Bergen county areas, do not hesitate to contact our office for a free and confidential consultation.