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Court Discusses Mental Hygiene Law

The complainant brought this action to recover damages for injuries he claims to have suffered as a result of being knocked down as he attempted to board a bus operated by the accused. At the time of jury selection, the complainant moved to preclude the accused from offering evidence of or in any way calling the jury’s attention to the facts of the complainant’s incontestable past use of heroin and his current participation in a methadone treatment program. A New York Criminal Lawyer said at the jury coordinating part, the judge determined that the accused would be precluded from any reference to the complainant’s current use of methadone or his participation in the treatment program. He reserved to the trial judge the issue of whether the complainant’s past use of heroin was admissible in the liability phase of the trial.

Following jury selection and prior to opening, the court granted the balance of the complainant’s motion and precluded the accused from mentioning or offering any evidence of the complainant’s past use of heroin. Given that there is a paucity of reported case law regarding the admissibility of such evidence in civil proceedings, the court files the decision to memorialize its opinion.
A New York Criminal Lawyer said the motion does not question whether a complainant’s use of heroin is admissible in the damages phase of a civil trial where the jury is assessing a variety of health and life issues relating to the complainant, such as life expectancy. In that context, with an appropriate foundation, testimony regarding the complainant’s heroin use would surely be admissible. Nor is it about whether the complainant was under the influence of heroin at the time of the accident so that his powers of perception or recollection might actually have been impaired by his heroin habit; nor whether the complainant was under the influence of heroin at the time of his testimony. The use of heroin by the complainant in those circumstances would be admissible even in the liability phase to impeach his credibility as a witness. Indeed, in all of those situations, proof of heroin use and addiction even by extrinsic evidence would be proper. The lone issue decided by the court on the branch of the motion reserved to it was whether the complainant’s past use of heroin was admissible as an act of moral depravity offered only to attack his credibility as a witness.

With the triviality of the advocacy dissipated, neither side could nor did take issue with the black letter rule which states that a witness may be examined with respect to specific immoral, vicious or criminal acts which have a bearing on the witness’s credibility. A New York Drug Crime Lawyer said that founded on such rule, the accused opposed the preclusion arguing that the complainant’s heroin addiction and use over a long period of his life tended to establish moral depravity and, therefore, those acts were relevant and proper impeachment of his credibility as a witness. That same black letter rule, of course, acknowledges the power of the trial court to exercise discretion with respect to the nature and extent of bad act cross-examination. Over the accused person’s strong exception, the court exercised its discretion to preclude proof of the complainant’s addiction and use of heroin which, incidentally, would have included reference to the complainant’s hospital records if extrinsic proof of the claimed past bad acts became necessary.

A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said there is little doubt that the complainant’s heroin habit qualifies as a specific immoral, vicious and/or criminal act which could have a bearing on the complainant’s credibility. The court, nonetheless, exercised its discretion to preclude the accused from offering such evidence or making such reference before the jury on two grounds. The first rests on the synergy of the proposed evidence with other evidence to be offered by the accused to impeach the complainant’s credibility. Not unexpectedly for someone who, at a young age, ruined his entire life as a slave to heroin, the complainant has the extraordinary criminal record of a petty thief and drug abuser. Among the many, but hardly exhaustive of them, some 30 criminal convictions, including two for criminal possession of a controlled substance, were to be (and were) offered to impeach the complainant’s credibility. In this context, the proposed use of the complainant’s heroin habit to attack his credibility further either in argument or by confrontation on the stand was determined by the court to be both cumulative and highly prejudicial. Provident discretion impelled its preclusion.

Another ground is by logical extension of a judge’s prior determination that reference to the complainant’s participation in a methadone treatment program was to be precluded. Had the court denied the balance of the motion in limine (a motion made before the start of a trial requesting that the judge rule that certain evidence may, or may not, be introduced to the jury in a trial), the complainant would have been presented with the choice of keeping the current participation in a methadone treatment program confidential, as the previous judge’s had ruled, but only at the expense of foregoing the opportunity to rehabilitate his credibility in the eyes of the jury by showing that he had given up his life of moral depravity for a life of new hope in treatment.

More importantly, the judge’s ruling relied on Mental Hygiene Law provides that notwithstanding any other provision of law including but not limited to the election law, no person’s rights as a citizen of the United States or of the state of New York shall be forfeited or abridged because of such person’s participation in chemical dependence programs, treatment facilities or services. Such participation shall include but is not limited to the certification as substance dependent of a person to the care and custody of the office under previously existing provisions of law. The fact, proceedings, application, or treatment relating to a person’s participation in chemical dependence programs, treatment facilities, or services shall not be used against such person in any action or proceeding in any court.

Obvious from these words is the enactment by the Legislature of a strong public policy that participation in a drug treatment program is to be confidential and that no right shall be forfeited or abridged on account of program participation.

It is clear to the court, therefore, to give full intended effect to the strong public policy of New York State, that even if the past use of heroin were the only basis to attack the credibility of the complainant, his current participation in a methadone treatment program would preclude any reference to or offer of proof of past heroin use when offered solely for the purpose of impeaching his credibility on the grounds of his immoral, vicious or criminal acts of moral depravity. Accordingly, as a matter of public policy, a trial court in a civil action should exercise its discretion to preclude reference to or the offer of evidence regarding the past heroin use and addiction of a witness who is at the time of his testimony participating in a chemical dependency treatment program where such reference or offer is made solely to impeach the credibility of that witness.

For all the foregoing reasons, the complainant’s motion to preclude reference or the offer of proof by the accused, either extrinsically or directly, of the past use of heroin by the complainant for the sole purpose of impeaching his credibility on the witness stand was granted.

Our past will always play a role in our present and future that is why it is important that we live clean. Once we made a mistake, the society that we are in seldom gives a second chance even though we already suffered for the consequences of our wrongdoings. If you want to prove your innocence, consult the NY Drug Crime Lawyers together with the NYC Criminal Attorneys from Stephen Bilkis and Associates. When you are involved in a drug possession dispute, call the New York City Heroin Attorney.

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