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Hagan v. Goss

United States District Court, Third Circuit

May 29, 2013

DAMONT HAGAN, Plaintiff,
NATHAN GOSS, et al., Defendants.


MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.


This is a civil rights action brought by the plaintiff, Damont Hagan, a state prisoner formerly housed in the Special Management Unit (SMU) of the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill (SCI-Camp Hill). In his complaint, the plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(2), against several present and former SCI-Camp Hill SMU staff, alleging: (1) that the plaintiff was assaulted on August 1, 2008, Amended Complaint ¶¶ 1-2, 19; and (2) that the defendants conspired against the plaintiff to intimidate him to prevent him from testifying in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2), Amended Complaint ¶¶ 6-8, 23.

Presently before the court are two motions in limine , both of which relate to the impeachment of certain inmate-witnesses. For their part, the defendants have filed a motion in limine seeking authorization to impeach these inmate witnesses by questioning them regarding the fact of their prior convictions. (Doc. 145.) Hagan, in turn, has filed his own motion in limine seeking to exclude any reference to these prior convictions in cross examination of either the plaintiff or the inmate-witnesses. (Doc. 155.)

For the reasons set forth below, both motions will be granted, in part, and denied, in part, in that we will permit cross examination regarding the fact of prior convictions, but will restrict the scope of that cross examination in a fashion which has previously been approved by the courts in similar circumstances. Further, to the extent this evidence regarding the plaintiff's violent criminal past informed the defendants' judgment "the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by responsible officials on the basis of the facts known to them, " Brooks v. Kyler , 204 F.3d 102, 106 (3d Cir. 2000), it will be admissible subject to the limitations imposed by Rules 402 and 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, and in assessing the degree of force that the defendants perceived was necessary on August 1, 2008, "Defendants may testify to their knowledge that [Hagan] was convicted of crimes of violence and the length of his sentences, " Womack v. Smith, 1:06-CV-2348, 2012 WL 1245752 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 13, 2012), but defendants may not describe the specific nature of those offenses.


These competing motions in limine call upon us to balance both the probative impeachment value and potential prejudicial impact of prior convictions of parties and witnesses in this civil rights lawsuit. Moreover, we are called upon to strike this balance in a setting where many of the plaintiff's witnesses, including the plaintiff himself, have significant prior criminal records.[1]

With respect to these convictions, the parties cast two starkly contrasting positions in their motions. Plaintiff argues that defendants' use of the witnesses' past convictions for impeachment purposes should be prohibited based on Federal Rules of Evidence 403 and 404. In this regard, plaintiff contends that the convictions have no relevance to the case at hand, and claims that evidence of the convictions should be excluded under Rule 403 because the probative value of the convictions-and particularly the murder convictions - is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice and their introduction will lead to confusion of the issues and mislead the jury.

In contrast, defendants argue that the convictions in question are probative of these witnesses' truthfulness and should be available during cross-examination for purposes of impeachment. According to defendants, the felony convictions indicate a flagrant disregard of societal norms and an increased likeliness that the witnesses might commit perjury. Thus, this information is relevant to the jury's evaluation of the credibility of witness testimony, a central part of the case. Defendants also note that the ten-year period set forth in Rule 609(b) runs not from the date of the witness's conviction, but rather from the date of the witness's release from prison, and thus for the most part, does not operate to bar the introduction of any of the convictions at issue in this case.

Our analysis of these competing claims is guided at the outset by Federal Rule of Evidence 609 which provides as follows:

(a) General rule. For the purpose of attacking the character for truthfulness 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 regardless of the punishment, if it readily can be determined that establishing the elements of the crime required proof or admission of an act of dishonesty or false statement by the witness.
(b) Time limit. Evidence of a conviction under this rule is not admissible if a period of more than ten years has elapsed since the date of the conviction or of the release of the witness from the confinement imposed for that conviction, whichever is the later date, unless the court determines, in the interests of justice, that the probative value of the conviction supported by specific facts and circumstances substantially outweighs its prejudicial effect. However, evidence of a conviction more than 10 years old as calculated herein, is not admissible unless the proponent gives to the adverse party ...

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