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Proposed Changes to New Jersey Rule of Evidence

May 2, 2013 | Posted In Criminal Law - Criminal Law

A committee of the New Jersey Supreme Court has proposed changes to evidence rules in court proceedings, hoping to restrict the use of evidence from past crimes to besmirch a defendant's credibility in a present trial. NJ criminal lawyers report that the committee plans to update the language and the range of New Jersey Rule of Evidence 609. The committee recommends these changes in the aftermath of a 2012 state Supreme Court decision, State v. Harris.

Derrick Harris was charged with robbery and burglary in 2007, and at his trial, a judge allowed the prosecution to introduce into evidence Harris' 1997 drug conviction. The prosecutor used the drug charges along with previous disorderly persons convictions to disprove Harris' credibility on the stand. After the case, the Supreme Court selected a committee to weigh in on the current status of N.J.R.E. 609, and whether it needs to be amended.

Currently, N.J.R.E 609 allows any and all evidence of a witness' criminal conviction to be presented in trial "unless excluded by the judge as remote or for other causes." Irrelevant evidence and convictions for past crimes that have no bearing on the current case can be ignored in an ongoing trial, but the committee seeks to extend the case to include evidence which has been excused in court as well. The newly proposed language of the rule would mandate that any evidence of conviction from 10 years prior or earlier could not be used in court against a case in progress.

The revision specifies how the 10-year range will be determined—from the date of a conviction or the date of a release from prison, depending on which happened later. New Jersey criminal attorneys say that trial judges conduct a "remoteness analysis under N.J.R.E. 609," in order to determine what should and should not be allowed as evidence during trial. The proposed revisions allow for crimes older than 10 years to be admitted, if these crimes are related to the present charges, or have intervening circumstances that connect the two cases. The committee's proposal follows the current practice of grouping testifying defendants and witnesses together under N.J.R.E. 609.

The committee's plan also allows for the admission of older crimes that may prove a dishonest character, such as fraud. But a subcommittee chosen to evaluate the proposed changes argued that this aspect of the plan might undermine a judge's ability to perform a remoteness analysis. The subcommittee's report instead recommended that all crimes older than 10 years should be considered at an equal level, and left to the judge's discretion in terms of importance to the trial at hand.

Criminal attorneys in New Jersey say that the proposed law gives all defendants and witnesses an equal chance to be heard in court, especially those who may have had some youthful indiscretions in their past, or who have undergone prison time or rehabilitation in the years after their convictions. The criminal lawyers at New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA represent anyone who is facing charges with an existing criminal record.

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