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Frederick v. Hanna

March 16, 2007

MARTIN FREDERICK AND BARBARA FREDERICK, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ELIAS HANNA, JOHN JOHNSON, MANOR BOROUGH, OFFICER STEFFEY AND PENN TOWNSHIP DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge.

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

SYNOPSIS

In this civil matter, in which trial is imminent, the parties have filed several Motions in Limine. I will address each Motion in turn.

I. Applicable Standards

Relevant evidence is evidence that tends to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence. Fed. R. Evid. 401. This definition of relevance is very broad, and does not raise a high standard. Gibson v. Mayor & Council of Wilmington, 355 F. 3d 215, 232 (3d Cir. 2004). In turn, Fed. R. Evid. 403 permits the exclusion of relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.

The proponent of evidence bears the burden of establishing its admissibility and relevance. See, e.g., Yibulayin v. yellow Freight Sys., No. 04-3690, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23836, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 18, 2005).

II. Motions in Limine

A. Guilty Plea of Elias Hanna

Both parties have filed Motions in Limine regarding Defendant Hanna's January 30, 2007 plea of guilty to violating 18 U.S.C. § 371, by conspiring to engage in an illegal gambling enterprise. Plaintiffs argue that the guilty plea and related evidence is admissible as impeachment evidence under Fed. R. Civ. P. 609. In contrast, Defendants argue that the evidence is inadmissible, in part, under Fed. R. Evid. 403. Defendants have also suggested, in the alternative, that the Court limit the evidence to a stipulation by the parties, to be read into the record by the Court, that Defendant Hanna was charged with one count of participating in a gambling enterprise, to which he plead guilty, and the dates of the charge and the plea.

Fed. Rule of Evid. 609, in pertinent part, provides as follows:

(a) General rule. For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness,

(1) evidence that a witness other than an accused has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted subject to Rule 403, if the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and evidence that an accused has been convicted of such a crime shall be admitted if the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to the accused; and

(2) evidence that any witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted if it involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.

"Because the district court lacks discretion to engage in balancing, Rule 609(a)(2) must be interpreted narrowly to apply only to those crimes that, in the words of the Conference Committee, bear on a witness's propensity to testify truthfully." Cree v. Hatcher, 969 F.2d 34, 37 (3d Cir. 1992).

Section 371 reads, in full, as follows: "If two or more persons conspire to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both." 18 U.S.C. § 371.

Plaintiffs argue that Hanna's conviction involves dishonesty because Section 371 uses the term "defraud." The statute, however, uses the term "defraud" in the conjunctive only, and only in reference to a conspiracy to "defraud the United States." There is no suggestion that Defendant Hanna was charged with a conspiracy to defraud, as opposed to a conspiracy to "commit any offense." Moreover, Plaintiffs make no persuasive argument that the underlying gambling offense involves dishonesty or false statement, or bears on Hanna's propensity to testify truthfully. I will not accept their generalized argument based on the commission of a crime while under a police officer's oath to uphold the law, as that would render Rule 609 a nullity with respect to any law enforcement officer convicted of any crime. Therefore, the evidence is not admissible under Rule 609(a)(2).

The parties do not dispute, however, that the crime at issue is punishable by imprisonment in excess of one year. As a result, in order to admit the evidence as Plaintiffs urge, I must determine that its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect under Rule 609(a)(1). Our Court of Appeals has identified four factors that a district court should weigh in making a Rule 609(a)(1) determination: (1) the kind of crime involved; (2) when the prior conviction occurred; (3) the importance of the witness's testimony; and (4) ...


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