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Appellate Court Agrees Prejudicial Error Committed at Trial


In this criminal case, defendant was convicted by a jury on three counts of willful attempt to evade or defeat his federal income tax due for the years 1970, 1971 and 1972, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7201. He was sentenced to one year imprisonment on each count, the sentences to run concurrently, and a $5,000 fine on each count. A New York Criminal Lawyer said the issues raised by defendant on appeal can be grouped into three categories: (1) government misconduct before the grand jury; (2) Jencks Act material; and (3) introduction of a 16-year-old military conviction for larceny.
The issues in this case are whether the issues raised by the defendant on his appeal that was grouped into three categories have merit.

The Court held that it finds no merit to the claims under the first two headings but concludes that it was prejudicial error to admit the military conviction into evidence. We reverse and remand.

I. Government misconduct before the grand jury

A. False statements

While testifying before the grand jury, special agent of the IRS made three statements which defendant says were false, known to the government to be false, and material. In a 1974 case decision by the Court of Appeals (CA9, 1974), defendant urges that the government had a constitutional obligation to inform the court, counsel and grand jury about the statements and that its failure to do so requires dismissal of the indictment. In the said case, a New York Criminal Lawyer said the Ninth Circuit held that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment is violated when a defendant has to stand trial on an indictment which the government knows is based partially on perjured testimony, when the perjured testimony is material, and when jeopardy has not attached. Whenever the prosecutor learns of any perjury committed before the grand jury, he is under a duty to immediately inform the court and opposing counsel and, if the perjury may be material, also the grand jury in order that appropriate action may be taken.

A subsequent Ninth Circuit opinion, has not only cut back on the reach of the 1974 case, but has also questioned its continuing validity. This court has never decided whether to adopt the constitutional rule laid down in the 1974 case. Nor do we decide that issue today. A prerequisite to the applicability of the 1974 case rule is a finding that the government witness perjured himself. In the case before us the district court, doubtful whether there were any misstatements, concluded that, if there were, there was no evidence that the special agent “deliberately attempted to mislead, certainly no evidence of perjury,” a finding that can be reversed only if clearly erroneous. A New York Drug Possession Lawyer said the Court’s review of the special agent’s grand jury testimony supports the district court’s conclusion. Absent a finding that perjury was committed; there is no basis for dismissing the indictment.

Appellant’s argument in the 1974 case fails in a second respect. In the sense that they were about collateral matters, the special agent’s alleged misstatements were not material. The statements in question revolve around the agent’s testimony concerning a recorded interview he had conducted with then the defendant. The special agent testified that the defendant’s “only explanation” why his bank accounts ” far exceeded his gross income from all known sources” was that he had accumulated a large sum of money from dealing in currency exchange while stationed with the Air Force in Turkey. The transcript of the interview indicates that defendant presented several explanations for the accumulated money in his bank accounts. Defendant claims that the statement limiting his explanation to currency dealings was material because in a tax fraud case based on net worth computations the government must investigate and negate taxpayer explanations for cash on hand at the beginning of the computation period in order to establish a definite opening net worth, Assuming that the Holland rule for net worth computation trials is applicable to the government’s presentation of its case to the grand jury, the government’s case against defendant was computed on the premise that at the beginning of the government’s computation period he had on hand the $55,000 cash hoard he claimed to have. The “one explanation” statement was, therefore, not material to the government’s net worth computations.

The second statement made by the special agent that may have been misleading, because it was unresponsive, was in answer to a grand juror’s question concerning the defendant’s prior military conviction. Juror: Was that for the currency dealings he was convicted? Witness: He had several things going, currency exchange was part of it.

The government concedes that the defendant was not convicted for Currency exchange violations but rather Military post-exchange violations. The Court concludes, however, that the above statement is not material to an element of a § 7201 offense. Defendant argues that this statement combined with the first statement leaves the impression that he created the currency exchange lead for the cash hoard because it is a difficult source to investigate and refute. This is too strained an interpretation of the evidence.

The final statement in question occurred while the special agent was testifying about defendant’s military career. He testified that he asked the defendant whether he was retired from the Air Force and recounted that defendant said “No”. In fact, the special agent had asked the defendant whether he was retired from the Army. A “no” response to the Army question by the defendant was truthful, while a “no” response to the Air Force question was misleading.

A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said according to defendant, the grand jury may have inferred that he was trying to lead the special agent away from discovery of his court-martial. Assuming that such an inference was drawn by the grand jury, it was not material to an element of the offense. Moreover, because defendant concedes that the grand jury was entitled to be informed of his court-martial, any increased prejudice caused by the manner of informing the grand jury must be slight and certainly not of constitutional proportions.
Thus, the Court agrees with the district court’s conclusion that dismissal of the indictment is not justified, because perjury was not proved and because the statements lacked materiality to the offense. But the presentation of the case to the grand jury is hardly commendable. Why the prosecutor elected to use the special agent’s hearsay account of his interview with the defendant rather than use the verbatim transcript of the interview we do not know. Use of the transcript would have avoided the problems discussed in this portion of our opinion.
B. Improper remark
During the course of his grand jury testimony, the special agent remarked that the defendant was “caught with his hand in the cookie jar.” Inflammatory remarks made by a prosecutor justify the dismissal of an indictment if the improper remarks so biased the grand jurors that their votes were based on their bias. The Court agrees with the district court that the remark was needless and improper. We also agree with the district court that the remark does not rise to constitutional proportions.
II. Jencks Act material
The special agent testified at the trial. After he testified defendant’s counsel requested all Jencks Act material. The government submitted his reports to the district judge for In camera inspection. The district judge ordered production with the deletion of several portions of the report. The clearly erroneous standard of review applies to district court determinations of what material must be produced under the Jencks Act. The Court has examined the deleted portions of the special agent’s report and concludes that no error was committed in not ordering their production.
III. Admission of 16-year-old military conviction
The defendant testified, and on cross-examination the prosecution impeached his credibility by eliciting the fact of his prior military conviction for grand larceny. The defendant has raised several objections to this use of his prior military conviction. Because the Court concludes that under Fed.R.Evid. 609(b) the trial judge abused his discretion in admitting defendant’s 16-year-old conviction, we do not reach his other objections.
While stationed in Turkey, the Court said that defendant was convicted by general court-martial of five specifications of theft of Air Force Exchange merchandise. He was sentenced to two years hard labor, was released from military confinement June 31, 1961, and called to testify in October 1977. The prior conviction was therefore a little more than 16 years old when offered into evidence as measured by the standards of Rule 609(b). Accordingly Rule 609(b)’s standard of admissibility for convictions over 10 years old applies: Evidence of a conviction under this rule is not admissible if a period of more than ten years has elapsed 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.
As originally presented to Congress, Rule 609(b) made inadmissible all convictions over 10 years old. Although Congress amended the Rule to allow for the use of prior convictions over 10 years old in some circumstances, the legislative history makes clear that “convictions over 10 years old will be admitted very rarely and only in exceptional circumstances.” Rule 609(b) must be interpreted in light of the gloss Congress placed on the Rule’s standard of admissibility. The Court concludes that by use of the term exceptional circumstances Congress intended the courts to take account of the need for using a prior conviction as an essential element of the probative value prejudicial effect balancing test mandated by Rule 609(b). The exceptional circumstances idea expressed in the legislative history responds to the “interests of justice” language of Rule 609(b).
The prior convictions of a witness may only be used by the jury to evaluate the witness’s credibility. In spite of the legal rule limiting the use of prior conviction evidence to impeachment purposes, when the witness is the accused the evidence is subject to improper use. The jury may misuse the evidence by considering the defendant a person of criminal tendencies and, therefore, more likely to have committed the crime for which he is being tried, or if the prior conviction is similar to the new charges, the jury may misuse the prior conviction as evidence of guilt, or the jury may just be more willing to convict a person who already has been convicted for a different crime. When the prior conviction is for a crime distinct from the charges for which the accused is currently being tried, as in this case, the potential for jury misuse of the evidence decreases. Nevertheless, potential prejudice arising from the criminal tendency inference and the jury’s willingness to convict an already once convicted person remains quite real.
We now turn to the probative value portion of Rule 609(b)’s equation. The probative value of a prior conviction is a function of at least two factors, the nature of the past crime and the remoteness of the conviction. Crimes involving dishonesty or false statement are often more probative of the witness’s lack of credibility than even more serious crimes involving violence. Rule 609(a) incorporates this distinction between types of crimes. Whether this defendant’s military conviction was for a crime involving dishonesty or false statement is a matter of dispute between the parties. On the view we take of this case, it is not necessary to resolve this dispute. Assuming that the military conviction was for a crime involving dishonesty, that is insufficient justification, by itself, for use of the prior conviction. The presumption against the use of an over-age conviction is not so weak that it falls before a finding that the prior conviction was for a crime involving dishonesty. A crime involving dishonesty is more likely to overcome Rule 609(b)’s presumption, but more than that bare conclusion must be shown.
In the context of admissibility of over-age convictions exceptional circumstances includes, though it is not limited to, the need of the party offering the evidence to use it. This concept of necessity is relevant to the district judge’s evaluation of the probative value of the conviction. It is the incremental probity of the evidence that is to be balanced against its potential for undue prejudice. Thus, if the Government has a strong case on the intent issue, the extrinsic offense may add little and consequently will be excluded more readily. Therefore, when a party wishes to use an over-age conviction, the trial judge must consider whether the witness already has been impeached, and if so, the probative value of the prior conviction decreases accordingly.
In this case nothing suggests exceptional circumstances justifying the use of defendant’s prior conviction. The defendant’s credibility had already been well impeached by the government’s cross-examination during which he had been caught in various contradictions and numerous misstatements. There was little need to add the icing of his military conviction. The district court mentioned that on direct examination defendant had testified to his accumulation of a cash hoard during his military career, and, of course, the court-martial for stealing occurred during his military service. Possibly the court considered the conviction as bearing on the credibility of defendant’s claim that he had accumulated a cash hoard. If anything, the conviction of stealing at the time defendant claimed he was accumulating his cash hoard, bolsters his credibility with respect to a hoard rather than impeaches it. Absent some additional factor justifying the use of the prior conviction, there is no basis for concluding that it falls within the exceptional circumstances caveat to the general prohibition against the use of a conviction more than 10 years old.
The Court held that the government says the error was harmless. The Court cannot say that it did not influence the jury or that it had very slight effect. The government argues that defendant already had been caught in so many falsehoods on cross-examination that the additional blow could not have hurt. The Court agrees that he had been well impeached, and, because he had, there was no need for the prosecution to use the 16-year-old conviction. The right to use evidence of prior convictions to impeach is tempered by the need to use it. It would be anomalous indeed to conclude that the less the prosecutor needs the evidence the freer he is to use it. Accordingly, the Court held that the judgment is reversed.
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