New Rule Places Stricter Limits on Using Evidence of Prior Convictions
The genesis of the rule changes is State v. Harris, 209 N.J. 431 (2012), in which a sharply divided state Supreme Court ruled that a trial judge did not abuse his discretion by admitting evidence of 13-year-old drug convictions that prosecutors sought to use to impeach the credibility of the defendant, who ultimately decided not to testify and was convicted of robbery and burglary.
The majority found Derrick Harris' numerous disorderly persons convictions during that 13-year window served to "bridge the gap," while the dissenters warned about the potentially chilling effect on defendants who wish to testify.
The court demanded examination of the rule. A subcommittee was formed, consisting of prosecutors and defense attorneys, and recommended the revisions, which the court's Committee on Rules of Evidence approved in March.
Defense lawyers are in favor of the changes. "Generally, I think that jurors have a natural human tendency to misuse this type of evidence" to find guilt, says Darren Gelber, president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, took issue with some aspects.
At a Sept. 3 public hearing, Atlantic County Prosecutor James McClain, testifying on behalf of the New Jersey Prosecutor's Association, called the automatic burden shift "an unnecessary change in the law that would work only to deprive juries of evidence relevant to the issue of the credibility of witnesses."
McClain said existing case law furnishes sufficient protections, specifically State v. Brunson, 132 N.J. 377 (1993), which provided that courts must "sanitize" evidence of prior convictions by barring information beyond the conviction's date, degree and resulting sentence.
The state Public Defender's Office, the State Bar Association's Criminal Law Section and the Middlesex County Bar Association all testified in support of the rule changes.
Joseph Benedict, testifying in favor of the amendment on behalf of the Middlesex Bar, said the current rule "simply doesn't work.
"It just receives disparate treatment from county to county and from judge to judge," said Benedict, of Benedict and Altman in New Brunswick, in response to McClain's remarks.