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Whether Your Felony Conviction Can Hurt You in a Civil Suit

A common fear among litigants as that their dirty laundry will be aired if they dare to bring a lawsuit – even when they've been wronged. This article explains the court's approach to determining whether a criminal conviction should be admitted in a civil lawsuit.

Misdemeanors are Not Admissible

First, misdemeanors are not admissible. Before considering whether your is admissible in court, it is important to know what charges are actually on your record. There is a big difference between the crimes charged against you and the crimes that actually stay on your record. Commonly, a person will be charged with numerous felonies but will reach a plea agreement for a misdemeanor. Before worrying about admissibility of your past crimes, find out what is actually on you or your witness's record.

Convictions Are Admissible to Attack Credibility

Credibility relates to a witness's truthfulness and believability. This is particularly important in a he said – she said type claim, where there are few third party witnesses, if any. Evidence Code § 788 allows the introduction of a felony conviction "for the purposes of attacking the credibility of a witness." However, like all evidence, the court may exclude it if "its probative value is substantially outweighed by the probability that its admission will ... (b) create substantial danger of undue prejudice,..."

Furthermore, the Legislature has provided that the sole trait relevant to impeaching credibility is truthfulness: "Evidence of traits of his character other than honesty or veracity, or their opposites, is inadmissible to attack or support the credibility of a witness." If a prior felony conviction does not involve the character trait of truthfulness, it must be excluded as irrelevant at the outset, since section 350 unequivocally provides that "[n]o evidence is admissible except relevant evidence."

So, the more a your crime relates to dishonesty, the more likely a court will want to admit the conviction to attack credibility. For example, a conviction of fraud is more intimately connected to truthfulness than a conviction for theft.

The Beagle Decision

In People v. Beagle (1972) 6 Cal.3d 441, the court unanimously held that although Evidence Code § 788 authorizes the admission of prior felony convictions to impeach the credibility of a witness, a trial court must, when requested, exercise its discretion under section 352 and exclude this evidence if the probative value of the prior convictions is outweighed by other factors, such as the risk of undue prejudice. Although the commission of any felony is sometimes said to reflect upon the character of the individual convicted, such a belief would not justify the use of every type of felony conviction to impeach credibility.

Applying the Beagle Factors

The Beagle court outlined four factors to consider: (1) Whether the prior conviction reflects adversely on an individual's honesty or veracity; (2) the nearness or remoteness in time of a prior conviction; (3) whether the prior conviction is for the same or substantially similar conduct to the charged offense; and (4) what the effect will be if the defendant does not testify out of fear of being prejudiced because of the impeachment by prior convictions. Further, when balancing the probative value versus prejudice, courts have acknowledged that civil proceedings do not risk the same degree of prejudice as criminal proceedings.

Individuals with criminal convictions should not remain silent when they have been wronged or witnessed a wrong out of fear they won't be believed. With zealous advocacy, damaging evidence can be kept out of court.

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