Luce v. United States

Decision Date10 December 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-912,83-912
Citation105 S.Ct. 460,469 U.S. 38,83 L.Ed.2d 443
PartiesEdward LUCE, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

During his trial in Federal District Court on federal drug charges, petitioner moved to preclude the Government from using a prior state conviction to impeach him if he testified. Petitioner made no commitment to testify if the motion were granted and no proffer as to what his testimony would be. The District Court denied the motion in limine, ruling that the prior conviction fell within the category of permissible impeachment evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a). Petitioner did not testify, and the jury returned guilty verdicts. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that since petitioner did not testify, it would not consider petitioner's contention that the District Court abused its discretion in denying his motion in limine without making a finding, as required by Rule 609(a)(1), that the probative value of the prior conviction outweighed its prejudicial effect.

Held: To raise and preserve for review the claim of improper impeachment with a prior conviction, a defendant must testify. To perform the weighing of the prior conviction's probative value against its prejudicial effect, as required by Rule 609(a)(1), the reviewing court must know the precise nature of the defendant's testimony, which is unknowable when, as here, the defendant does not testify. Any possible harm flowing from a district court's in limine ruling permitting impeachment by a prior conviction is wholly speculative. On the record in this case, it is conjectural whether the District Court would have allowed the Government to impeach with the prior conviction. Moreover, when the defendant does not testify, the reviewing court has no way of knowing whether the Government would have sought so to impeach, and cannot assume that the trial court's adverse ruling motivated the defendant's decision not to testify. Even if these difficulties could be surmounted, the reviewing court would still face the question of harmless error. If in limine rulings under Rule 609(a) were reviewable, almost any error would result in automatic reversal, since the reviewing court could not logically term "harmless" an error that presumptively kept the defendant from testifying. Requiring a defendant to testify in order to preserve Rule 609(a) claims enables the reviewing court to determine the impact any erroneous impeachment may have in light of the record as a whole, and tends to discourage making motions to exclude impeachment evidence solely to "plant" reversible error in the event of conviction. Pp. 41-43.

713 F.2d 1236, (CA 6 1983) affirmed.

James I. Marcus, Chicago, Ill., for petitioner.

Bruce M. Kuhlik, Washington, D.C., for the respondent, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Circuits as to whether the defendant, who did not testify at trial, is entitled to review of the District Court's ruling denying his motion to forbid the use of a prior conviction to impeach his credibility.

I

Petitioner was indicted on charges of conspiracy, and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1). During his trial in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, petitioner moved for a ruling to preclude the Government from using a 1974 state conviction to impeach him if he testified. There was no commitment by petitioner that he would testify if the motion were granted, nor did he make a proffer to the court as to what his testimony would be. In opposing the motion, the Government represented that the conviction was for a serious crime possession of a controlled substance.

The District Court ruled that the prior conviction fell within the category of permissible impeachment evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a).1 The District Court noted, however, that the nature and scope of petitioner's trial testimony could affect the court's specific evidentiary rulings; for example, the court was prepared to hold that the prior conviction would be excluded if petitioner limited his testimony to explaining his attempt to flee from the arresting officers. However, if petitioner took the stand and denied any prior involvement with drugs, he could then be impeached by the 1974 conviction. Petitioner did not testify, and the jury returned guilty verdicts.

II

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. 713 F.2d 1236 (1983). The Court of Appeals refused to consider petitioner's contention that the District Court abused its discretion in denying the motion in limine 2 without making an explicit finding that the probative value of the prior conviction outweighed its prejudicial effect. The Court of Appeals held that when the defendant does not testify, the court will not review the District Court's in limine ruling.

Some other Circuits have permitted review in similar situations; 3 we granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 466 U.S. 903, 104 S.Ct. 1677, 80 L.Ed.2d 152 (1984). We affirm.

III

It is clear, of course, that had petitioner testified and been impeached by evidence of a prior conviction, the District Court's decision to admit the impeachment evidence would have been reviewable on appeal along with any other claims of error. The Court of Appeals would then have had a complete record detailing the nature of petitioner's testimony, the scope of the cross-examination, and the possible impact of the impeachment on the jury's verdict.

A reviewing court is handicapped in any effort to rule on subtle evidentiary questions outside a factual context.4 This is particularly true under Rule 609(a)(1), which directs the court to weigh the probative value of a prior conviction against the prejudicial effect to the defendant. To perform this balancing, the court must know the precise nature of the defendant's testimony, which is unknowable when, as here, the defendant does not testify.5

Any possible harm flowing from a district court's in limine ruling permitting impeachment by a prior conviction is wholly speculative. The ruling is subject to change when the case unfolds, particularly if the actual testimony differs from what was contained in the defendant's proffer. Indeed even if nothing unexpected happens at trial, the district judge is free, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, to alter a previous in limine ruling. On a record such as here, it would be a matter of conjecture whether the District Court would have allowed the Government to attack petitioner's credibility at trial by means of the prior conviction.

When the defendant does not testify, the reviewing court also has no way of knowing whether the Government would have sought to impeach with the prior conviction. If, for example, the Government's case is strong, and the defendant is subject to impeachment by other means, a prosecutor might elect not to use an arguably inadmissible prior conviction.

Because an accused's decision whether to testify "seldom turns on the resolution of one factor," New Jersey v. Portash, 440 U.S. 450, 467, 99 S.Ct. 1292, 1301, 59 L.Ed.2d 501 (1979) (BLACKMUN, J., dissenting), a reviewing court cannot assume that the adverse ruling motivated a defendant's decision not to testify. In support of his motion a defendant might make a commitment to testify if his motion is granted; but such a commitment is virtually risk free because of the difficulty of enforcing it.

Even if these difficulties could be surmounted, the reviewing court would still face the question of harmless error. See generally United States v. Hasting, 461 U.S. 499, 103 S.Ct. 1974, 76 L.Ed.2d 96 (1983). Were in limine rulings under Rule 609(a) reviewable on appeal, almost any error would result in the windfall of automatic reversal; the appellate court could not logically term "harmless" an error that presumptively kept the defendant from testifying. Requiring that a defendant testify in order to preserve Rule 609(a) claims will enable the reviewing court to determine the impact any erroneous impeachment may have had in light of the record as a whole; it will also tend to discourage making such motions solely to "plant" reversible error in the event of conviction.

Petitioner's reliance on Brooks v. Tennessee, 406 U.S. 605, 92 S.Ct. 1891, 32 L.Ed.2d 358 (1972), and New Jersey v. Portash, supra, is misplaced. In those cases we reviewed Fifth Amendment challenges to state-court rulings that operated to dissuade defendants from testifying. We did not hold that a federal court's prelimi- nary ruling on a question not reaching constitutional dimensions such as a decision under Rule 609(a)—is reviewable on appeal.

However, Justice POWELL, in his concurring opinion in Portash, stated...

To continue reading

Request your trial
3341 cases
  • Brumfield v. Stinson
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of New York
    • 4 Diciembre 2003
    ...order to preserve the issue of admissibility of prior convictions for review, a defendant must testify. Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41-43, 105 S.Ct. 460, 83 L.Ed.2d 443 (1984). Otherwise, any harm that defendant faced is "wholly speculative." Id. at 41, 105 S.Ct. 460. "Second Circui......
  • People v. Hall
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • 18 Mayo 2018
    ...whether state law error " ‘so infused the trial with unfairness as to deny due process of law’ "].) In Luce v. United States (1984) 469 U.S. 38, 105 S.Ct. 460, 83 L.Ed.2d 443 ( Luce ), the United States Supreme Court indicated in passing that as a matter of federal practice, "even if nothin......
  • People v. Hovey
    • United States
    • California Supreme Court
    • 25 Febrero 1988
    ...such impeachment. (People v. Collins (1986) 42 Cal.3d 378, 383-388, 228 Cal.Rptr. 899, 722 P.2d 173; see Luce v. United States (1984) 469 U.S. 38, 105 S.Ct. 460, 83 L.Ed.2d 443.) Here, rather than testify subject to such impeachment, defendant chose to stipulate to his identity as Tina's as......
  • People v. May
    • United States
    • California Supreme Court
    • 2 Enero 1987
    ...v. Disbrow (1976) 16 Cal.3d 101, 127 Cal.Rptr. 360, 545 P.2d 272. I would go one step further and hold that Luce v. United States (1984) 469 U.S. 38, 105 S.Ct. 460, 83 L.Ed.2d 443 does not apply in this context. Luce holds that the denial of a motion to exclude evidence of a prior convictio......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
38 books & journal articles
  • Pre-Trial Procedures and Documents
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Litigating Employment Discrimination Cases. Volume 1-2 Volume 2 - Practice
    • 1 Mayo 2023
    ...for knowing the witnesses’ schedules. [§9:47 Reserved] V. MOTIONS IN LIMINE A. Basic Point [§9:48] 1. Defined [§9:49] In Luce v. U.S. , 469 U.S. 38 (1984), the Supreme Court defined motions in limine as follows: ‘In limine’ has been defined as “[o]n or at the threshold; at the very beginnin......
  • Trial proceedings and motions
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2017 Contents
    • 31 Julio 2017
    ...these circumstances. • Additionally, nothing in the amendment changes the Supreme Court’s prior case law, including United States v. Luce, 469 U.S. 38 (1984). There, the Court held that a criminal defendant who unsuccessfully moves in limine to preclude cross-examination about his prior con......
  • Table of Cases
    • United States
    • ABA Antitrust Library Antitrust Discovery Handbook
    • 1 Enero 2013
    ...Cos., In re , 134 S.W.3d 876 (Tex. App. 2004), 106 LTV Sec. Litig., In re , 89 F.R.D. 595 (N.D. Tex. 1981), 149 Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38 (1984), 81 Lupron Marketing and Sales Pracs. Litig., In re , 313 F. Supp. 2d 8 (D. Mass. 2004), 208 Lupron Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., In re......
  • Witnesses
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Trial Evidence Foundations - 2017 Contents
    • 31 Julio 2017
    ...may consider the evidence. Additionally, most state courts have adopted the United States Supreme Court’s view in Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38 (1984) that an accused who does not take the stand and get impeached by prior convictions, lacks standing to preserve error on this point. The......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT