The limited issue to be decided in this matter is best stated by the question: Can a defendant's prior conviction of crime, found by a jury, be used to affect his credibility at a later trial on another offense, where the defendant has not yet been sentenced on the prior conviction? This precise question does not appear to have been previously decided in this jurisdiction.
Defendant Rios was indicted for unlawful possession of cocaine allegedly committed on August 7, 1974. On motion, he was granted suspension of proceedings on March 3, 1975 under N.J.S.A. 24:21-27. However, during the period of the suspension order, and specifically on August 10, 1976, Rios was arrested on a new drug-related offense which resulted in an indictment on December 22, 1976 charging him with possession with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance.
This latter event caused the court to terminate the suspension order on April 26, 1977, and the earlier (1974) indictment was restored to the trial calendar.
As it turned out, defendant was first tried to a jury on the 1976 indictment and was found guilty on July 27, 1977. Two sentence dates scheduled by the trial judge were adjourned at the request of Rios' attorney.
While awaiting sentence on his conviction defendant was tried in this court on the 1974 indictment. During the trial, and out of the presence of the jury, the State sought a ruling on the admissibility of defendant's earlier guilty verdict to affect his credibility at this trial if he should take the stand and testify. Defense counsel argued against the admission of this evidence on the ground that the jury's verdict of guilt does not become a "conviction" until defendant is sentenced. He further states this would be unfair to defendant because defendant has no right to appeal until after sentence is imposed and a conviction while on appeal may not be used to affect a witness's credibility. See State v. Blue , 129 N.J. Super. 8, 12 (App. Div. 1974).
Authority for using a prior conviction of crime to affect the credibility of a witness is set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:81-12. Paraphrased, this statute provides:
For the purpose of affecting the credibility of any witness, his conviction of any crime may be shown by examination or otherwise and his answers may be contradicted by other evidence.
Furthermore, it has been held that the word "may" in the statute does not confer judicial discretion in the admissibility of prior convictions but rather grants permission to a party to offer this evidence to affect credibility and, if offered, must be allowed by the court.
In State v. Hawthorne , 49 N.J. 130 (1967), Justice Francis stated:
Obviously, a prior conviction of crime is not admissible to attack the credibility of a defendant unless he testifies at the trial on his own behalf. State v. Manley , 54 N.J. 259, 266 (1969); State v. Nagy , 27 N.J. Super. 1, 7 (App. Div. 1953).
Although the question of admissibility of a jury verdict of criminal guilt before sentence thereon to affect credibility has not been decided, it has been held that a plea of guilty without judgment of sentence thereon is so admissible. See State v. ...