519 U.S. 172 (1997), 95-6556, Old Chief v. United States

Docket Nº:Case No. 95-6556
Citation:519 U.S. 172, 117 S.Ct. 644, 136 L.Ed.2d 574, 65 U.S.L.W. 4049
Party Name:OLD CHIEF v. UNITED STATES
Case Date:January 07, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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519 U.S. 172 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 644, 136 L.Ed.2d 574, 65 U.S.L.W. 4049

OLD CHIEF

v.

UNITED STATES

Case No. 95-6556

United States Supreme Court

January 7, 1997

Argued October 16, 1996

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

After a fracas involving at least one gunshot, petitioner, Old Chief, was charged with, inter alia, violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which prohibits possession of a firearm by anyone with a prior felony conviction. He offered to stipulate to § 922(g)(1)'s prior-conviction element, arguing that his offer rendered evidence of the name and nature of his prior offense— assault causing serious bodily injury—inadmissible because its "probative value [was] substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice . . . ,"Fed.RuleEvid. 403. The Government refused to join the stipulation, however, insisting on its right to present its own evidence of the prior conviction, and the District Court agreed. At trial, the Government introduced the judgment record for the prior conviction, and a jury convicted Old Chief. In affirming the conviction, the Court of Appeals found that the Government was entitled to introduce probative evidence to prove the prior offense regardless of the stipulation offer.

Held:

A district court abuses its discretion under Rule 403 if it spurns a defendant's offer to concede a prior judgment and admits the full judgment record over the defendant's objection, when the name or nature of the prior offense raises the risk of a verdict tainted by improper considerations, and when the purpose of the evidence is solely to prove the element of prior conviction. Pp. 178-192.

(a) Contrary to Old Chief's position, the name of his prior offense as contained in the official record is relevant to the prior-conviction element. That record made his § 922(g)(1) status "more probable . . . than it [would have been] without the evidence," Fed. Rule Evid. 401; and the availability of alternative proofs, such as his admission, did not affect its evidentiary relevance, see Advisory Committee's Notes on Fed. Rule Evid. 401, 28 U.S.C. App., p. 859. Pp. 178-179.

(b) As to a criminal defendant, Rule 403's term "unfair prejudice" speaks to the capacity of some concededly relevant evidence to lure the factfinder into declaring guilt on an improper basis rather than on proof specific to the offense charged. Such improper grounds certainly include generalizing from a past bad act that a defendant is by propensity the probable perpetrator of the current crime. Thus, Rule 403 requires that the relative probative value of prior-conviction evidence be balanced

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against its prejudicial risk of misuse. A judge should balance these factors not only for the item in question but also for any actually available substitutes. If an alternative were found to have substantially the same or greater probative value but a lower danger of unfair prejudice, sound judicial discretion would discount the value of the item first offered and exclude it if its discounted probative value were substantially outweighed by unfairly prejudicial risk. Pp. 180-185.

(c) In dealing with the specific problem raised by § 922(g)(1) and its prior-conviction element, there can be no question that evidence of the name or nature of the prior offense generally carries a risk of unfair prejudice whenever the official record would be arresting enough to lure a juror into a sequence of bad character reasoning. Old Chief sensibly worried about the prejudicial effect of his prior offense. His proffered admission also presented the District Court with alternative, relevant, admissible, and seemingly conclusive evidence of the prior conviction. Thus, while the name of the prior offense may have been technically relevant, it addressed no detail in the definition of the prior-conviction element that would not have been covered by the stipulation or admission. Pp. 185-186.

(d) Old Chief's offer supplied evidentiary value at least equivalent to what the Government's own evidence carried. The accepted rule that the prosecution is entitled to prove its case free from any defendant's option to stipulate the evidence away has virtually no application when the point at issue is a defendant's legal status. Here, the most the jury needed to know was that the conviction admitted fell within the class of crimes that Congress thought should bar a convict from possessing a gun. More obviously, the proof of status went to an element entirely outside the natural sequence of what Old Chief was charged with thinking and doing to commit the current offense. Since there was no cognizable difference between the evidentiary significance of the admission and the official record's legitimately probative component, and since the functions of the competing evidence were distinguishable only by the risk inherent in the one and wholly absent from the other, the only reasonable conclusion was that the risk of unfair prejudice substantially outweighed the conviction record's discounted probative value. Thus, it was an abuse of discretion to admit the conviction record when the defendant's admission was available. Pp. 186-192.

56 F.3d 75, reversed and remanded.

Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. O'Connor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia and Thomas, JJ., joined, post, p. 192.

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Daniel Donovan argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Anthony R. Gallagher.

Miguel A. Estrada argued the cause for the United States. On the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, Alan Jenkins, and Thomas E. Booth. [*]

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

Subject to certain limitations, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) prohibits possession of a firearm by anyone with a prior felony conviction, which the Government can prove by introducing a record of judgment or similar evidence identifying the previous offense. Fearing prejudice if the jury learns the nature of the earlier crime, defendants sometimes seek to avoid such an informative disclosure by offering to concede the fact of the prior conviction. The issue here is whether a district court abuses its discretion if it spurns such an offer and admits the full record of a prior judgment, when the name or nature of the prior offense raises the risk of a verdict tainted by improper considerations, and when the purpose of the evidence is solely to prove the element of prior conviction.[1] We hold that it does.

I

In 1993, petitioner, Old Chief, was arrested after a fracas involving at least one gunshot. The ensuing federal charges included not only assault with a dangerous weapon and using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence but violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). This statute makes it unlawful for anyone "who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" to "possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm . . . ." "[A]

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crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" is defined to exclude "any Federal or State offenses pertaining to antitrust violations, unfair trade practices, restraints of trade, or other similar offenses relating to the regulation of business practices" and "any State offense classified by the laws of the State as a misdemeanor and punishable by a term of imprisonment of two years or less."§ 921(a)(20).

The earlier crime charged in the indictment against Old Chief was assault causing serious bodily injury. Before trial, he moved for an order requiring the Government "to refrain from mentioning—by reading the Indictment, during jury selection, in opening statement, or closing argument— and to refrain from offering into evidence or soliciting any testimony from any witness regarding the prior criminal convictions of the Defendant, except to state that the Defendant has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one (1) year." App. 6. He said that revealing the name and nature of his prior assault conviction would unfairly tax the jury's capacity to hold the Government to its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on current charges of assault, possession, and violence with a firearm, and he offered to "solve the problem here by stipulating, agreeing and requesting the Court to instruct the jury that he has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one (1) yea[r]." Id., at 7. He argued that the offer to stipulate to the fact of the prior conviction rendered evidence of the name and nature of the offense inadmissible under Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, the danger being that unfair prejudice from that evidence would substantially outweigh its probative value. He also proposed this jury instruction:

"The phrase 'crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year' generally means a crime which is a felony. The phrase does not include any state offense classified by the laws of that state as a misdemeanor

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and punishable by a term of imprisonment of two years or less and certain crimes concerning the regulation of business practices.

"[I] hereby instruct you that Defendant JOHNNY LYNN OLD CHIEF has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year." Id., at 11.[2]

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The Assistant United States Attorney refused to join in a stipulation, insisting on his right to prove his case his own way, and the District Court agreed, ruling orally that, "If he doesn't want to stipulate, he doesn't have to." Id., at 15-16. At trial, over renewed...

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