What about a prior conviction? How does that affect a criminal case? Can the prosecution bring it out at trial? What if the victim has a bad record? Or a witness?
This post discusses the three ways a prior conviction affects a defendant in a case.
If a defendant has a felony conviction within ten years before his current charge, the sentencing range can be increased. An example of how this works:
Bob was convicted of illegal gun possession in 2004. He served two years. In 2011, he commits a robbery with a gun. This time it's robbery in the first degree. Without the prior conviction, he faced a range of 5 to 25 year in jail. With the prior conviction, he now faces a range of 10-25.
If he had two prior violent felonies? He'd be facing a minimum of 20 years with lifetime parole.
The sentences are increased for repeat offenders. However, the cut off to use a prior conviction to elevate a crime is usually ten years. Meaning, that if Bob's gun conviction was in 1998, it could not be used to elevate his sentencing range in 2011.
2) Can it be used as evidence at trial?
Here we are talking about the prosecution's case, not the defense case. Generally, the prosecution is not allowed to put evidence before the jury that the defendant was convicted of a crime.
The law says it's probative value is far outweighed by its prejudicial effect. What? In layman's terms - the jury will be more likely to convict a person they think is already a convicted felon, no matter what the proof is in the current case.
The prosecution must prove their case based on evidence of the current charges. The court does not allow proclivity evidence. No evidence that says "once a criminal, always a criminal."
There are certain situations when we are allowed to prove the defendant has previous convictions during our case. Elevated crimes are crimes that are felonies solely because the defendant has a previous conviction.
Thus, a misdemeanor DWI becomes a felony if the defendant has a prior DWI in the last ten years. Possessing an unregistered, unloaded gun becomes a felony if the defendant has been convicted of any previous crime.
In prosecuting these cases, we must prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant currently on trial is the same defendant convicted of the prior offense. It is an element of the crime. The jury then hears evidence the defendant is a convict and we use fingerprint comparisons to show his current prints are the same as his prints from the prior case.
Smart defense attorneys concede this element outside the presence of the jury, so the jurors never hear about it and we're not allowed to discuss it.
3) When the defendant testifies
So, we're not allowed to get into a defendant's criminal past. What about this situation? As a prosecutor, you sit there and watch the defendant testify waiting for an opportunity to cross-examine him. On the stand Bob, who's charged with that pesky gun point robbery, tells the jury he's never touched a gun in his life.
In your hands you hold his criminal history displaying his plea of guilty to possessing a gun a few years ago. But, you're not allowed to talk about his criminal history. What happens? Admit defeat? The jury leaves without the whole picture of the defendant? They acquit based on a lie?
Not at all. Prior to the defendant testifying (usually prior to jury selection) the court listens to arguments on whether the prosecution can question the defendant about his criminal past if he testifies. It's called a Sandoval hearing. The defense attorney argues that asking his client about prior convictions will be too prejudicial to him and will force him to reconsider testifying, a constitutional right.
The prosecution argues that the convictions are relevant on the issue of the defendant's credibility. Without giving the jury a full picture of the defendant, they will inflate his credibility. He cannot use the fact he is a prior felon as an impenetrable shield when testifying.
The court generally issues a compromise - we are allowed to ask the defendant if he's ever been convicted of a crime or a felony, but not allowed to ask about the facts underlying the conviction.
What about Bob who lied on the stand? Well, that is what we call "opening the door" to specific questions about his criminal past. It's the moment trial lawyers wait for. The court will allow the prosecution to ask specific convictions about the old conviction because he opened the door by lying. Then we get to slam it in his face.
Should the prosecution be allowed to ask questions about prior convictions? Should the jury know?
Check out a post later this week about the use of a witness's criminal history at trial.