Topics: Appellate Review

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Example - Inadmissible. “[E]vidence of the prior judgment was cumulative, because the Government had earlier introduced seven documents from Bejar’s earlier deportation that would strongly tend to prove that he was an alien.”


519 U.S. 172 (1997) [JB: a 5-4 decision]

Subject to certain limitations, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) prohibits possession of a firearm by anyone with a prior felony conviction, which the government can prove by introducing a record of judgment or similar evidence identifying the previous offense. Fearing prejudice if the jury learns the nature of the earlier crime, defendants sometimes seek to avoid such an informative disclosure by offering to concede the fact of the prior conviction. The issue here is whether a district court abuses its discretion if it spurns such an offer and admits the full record of a prior judgment, when the name or nature of the prior offense raises the risk of a verdict tainted by improper considerations, and when the purpose of the evidence is solely to prove the element of prior conviction. We hold that it does.
Before trial, [defendant] moved for an order requiring the government “to refrain from mentioning...the prior criminal convictions of the Defendant, except to state that the Defendant has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one (1) year.” ... The Assistant United States Attorney refused to join in a stipulation, insisting on his right to prove his case his own way, and the District Court agreed...
The principal issue is the scope of a trial judge's discretion under Rule 403... Old Chief sensibly worried that the prejudicial effect of his prior assault conviction, significant enough with respect to the current gun charges alone, would take on added weight from the related assault charge against him.
....In arguing that the stipulation or admission would not have carried equivalent value, the Government invokes the familiar, standard rule that the prosecution is entitled to prove its case by evidence of its own choice, or, more exactly, that a criminal defendant may not stipulate or admit his way out of the full evidentiary force of the case as the government chooses to present it....
....In this case,.. the only reasonable conclusion was that the risk of unfair prejudice did substantially outweigh the discounted probative value of the record of conviction, and it was an abuse of discretion to admit the record when an admission was available.

.... The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded


Note to Students: Don’t think the Old Chief case will be frequently used to make one party accept the proposed stipulation from the party that does not want the testimony (and reverse the trial judge if the judge does not make the proponent of the evidence accept the offer to stipulate. Cases like Old Chief’s, where an element of the crime charged is that the defendant has a prior felony conviction, are probably the only cases this decision applies to. In other words, don’t expect courts to require stipulations if the proponent of the evidence wants to prove their case through testimony of witnesses.

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