In a case of first impression, the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2011 adopted a new rule that permits a party to impeach a witness with “unspecified” felony convictions. State v. Hill, 801 N.W.2d 646 (Minn. 2011). The term “unspecified” refers to the practice of mentioning a prior felony conviction without revealing the nature of the conviction. For example, instead of asking defendant if he was convicted of an “aggravated robbery” in 2007 in Anoka County one asks only if defendant was convicted of a “felony” in 2007 in Anoka County.
It is the general lack of respect for the law, rather than the specific nature of the conviction, that informs the fact-finder about a witness’s credibility, at least with respect to convictions other than those involving dishonesty or false statements. In other words, any felony conviction is probative of a witness’s credibility, and the mere fact that a witness is a convicted felon holds impeachment value.
The decision about what details, if any, to disclose about the conviction at the time of impeachment is a decision that remains within the sound discretion of the district court. To exercise that discretion properly, a district court must weigh the probative value of admitting the evidence against its prejudicial effect. Minn. R. Evid. 609(a). “If a court finds that the prejudicial effect of disclosing the nature of a felony conviction outweighs its probative value, then it may still allow a party to impeach a witness with an unspecified felony conviction if the use of the unspecified conviction satisfies the balancing test of Rule 609(a)(1).” State v. Hill, 801 N.W.2d 646,652-53 (Minn. 2011).
Hon. Alan Pendleton
10th Judicial District