The question whether prior convictions of criminal offenses should be admitted as evidence to impeach the credibility of a witness has long been debated in the courts of the United States. An attempt was made by Congress to end the controversy with the adoption of rule 609(a) of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which makes it clear that impeachment by evidence of prior convictions is permissible in some situations. But, two years after the rule became effective,3 the controversy continues, now centering on what kind of prior convictions can be used to impeach under the "dishonesty or false statement" clause of rule 609(a)(2).
Rule 609(a) defines two categories of convictions which, when being used to impeach, receive differing treatments. First are convictions for crimes which are punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. These are crimes which, in most jurisdictions, would be considered felonies.
The second category, crimes involving "dishonesty or false statement," creates a problem for judges. Courts have reached differing decisions as to what crimes constitute "dishonesty or false statement." As a result, in this particular instance, the Rules have failed to achieve their objective of uniform application of evidentiary rules in the federal court system.
This comment will assess the impact of rule 609(a) from several perspectives. First, a thorough examination of Congressional records will be made to arrive at the Congressional intent behind the phrase "dishonesty or false statement" in rule 609(a)(2). Secondly, the case law which has developed in the first two years interpreting that clause will be reviewed. Thirdly, other problem areas in rule 609(a) will be discussed.
Bella, Ronald T.
"Impeaching Credibility through Evidence of Prior Convictions: Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a),"
University of Dayton Law Review: Vol. 3:
2, Article 11.
Available at: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/udlr/vol3/iss2/11