On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
LaVECCHIA, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this matter the Court considers whether the trial court erred in determining that it had no authority to sanitize the defendant's prior conviction because the charge on which he was being tried was not the same or similar to the crime for which he was previously convicted.
In the course of investigating the suspicious death of a woman found dead in an Atlantic City apartment, Atlantic City police interrogated defendant Hamilton because he was alleged to have been the last person to have seen the deceased alive. Hamilton was never a suspect in the death, which ultimately was found to have been caused by an overdose. As part of the investigation, however, Hamilton was taken to police headquarters. According to police, Hamilton was not searched because he was not a suspect and they could tell by his apparel that he did not have any weapons on him. Police maintained that during the questioning Hamilton began taking objects out of a pants pocket, throwing them on the desk, and shouting for the officers to let him go or lock him up. The officers claimed that when Hamilton took the contents out of another pocket, a shocked look came over his face and he attempted to throw an object toward a trash can. The object consisted of seven rubber-banded bags of heroin. Hamilton asserted, however, that he was searched for weapons at the police station, produced his phone, identification, money, and some paper, and then was escorted to the interrogation room. Hamilton claimed that an officer punched and kicked him and demanded to know what happened at the dead woman's apartment. According to Hamilton, when he disclaimed any knowledge, the officer dropped a bag of heroin on the floor and said, "it's yours now if you don't tell us what we want to know." After failing to provide additional information, he was arrested for possession of heroin.
The backdrop of the suspicious death investigation was important to Hamilton at his trial because the State intended to impeach his credibility if he took the stand, based on his prior conviction for the aggravated manslaughter of a young woman and a related conviction for unlawful possession of a weapon. Hamilton conceded that his prior convictions were not remote and were admissible at trial, but argued that the facts of his prior convictions should be sanitized because of their similarity to the circumstances that resulted in his charges on possession. Hamilton feared that the jury would cease to hear with an open mind his version of what transpired during his police interrogation once it heard "prior homicide conviction" reverberate through the courtroom.
Relying on State v. Brunson, the trial court held that although the introduction of the prior convictions was prejudicial, the convictions did not merit sanitization because they were not substantially similar to the charge that was being tried. In an attempt to reduce the potential prejudice just prior to the introduction of the prior convictions, the trial court instructed the jury that the woman's death had not been ruled a homicide and that Hamilton was never considered a suspect in her death. Additionally, in its charge to the jury, the court reiterated its cautionary instruction and advised the jury that the prior convictions could only be used in determining the believability of the Hamilton's testimony, and it was not permitted to conclude that he was more likely to have committed the charged offense because he had been convicted of other crimes. The jury found Hamilton guilty of heroin possession.
On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, observing that any extension of the law requiring sanitization would have to come from the Supreme Court.
HELD: The trial court erred in concluding that it had no ability to ameliorate the undue prejudice to defendant through sanitization of his earlier conviction. This Court's prior holding that sanitization is mandatory in situations in which a prior conviction is the same or similar to the present charge did not foreclose from trial courts the discretion to consider sanitization in other circumstances that pose a risk of undue prejudice to a defendant.
1. Our rules of evidence allow a witness's prior convictions to be admitted for impeachment purposes despite the obvious prejudice that flows from such evidence, particularly for a criminal defendant. Evidence Rule 609 provides that the conviction of a witness shall be admitted for the purpose of affecting credibility unless excluded by the judge following an analysis under State v. Sands, 76 N.J. 127 (1978). In Sands, this Court granted trial judges the discretion to preclude remote and highly prejudicial prior-conviction evidence from trial when necessary to protect a defendant from undue prejudice. (Pp. 2-3, 17).
2. In State v. Brunson, 132 N.J. 377 (1993), the Court recognized that in certain circumstances the prejudicial effect of past-conviction evidence is unlikely to be ameliorated by a remoteness analysis bolstered by limiting instructions and expressed concern that prior-conviction evidence may be used by a jury to impute to a defendant guilt of the present offense, especially when the prior and present offenses are the same. The Court held that when the State introduces a prior conviction that is the same or similar to the offense charged, the trial judge should prevent the jury from hearing the specifics of the prior offense by sanitizing it so that the jury learns only limited information, including the date, degree, and number of offenses. The Court limited the State to introduction of only the sanitized fact of the conviction of a crime that is the same or similar to the offense charged on the theory that those crimes presented the highest risk of prejudice to the defendant. The point to the Brunson holding, however, was that trial courts must recognize the risk of undue prejudice from prior-conviction evidence and that they have the authority to neutralize the highly prejudicial effect of this evidence by eliminating reference to the specifics of the earlier crime. (Pp. 11-- 17).
3. Hamilton's prior conviction involved a crime that factually resembled the circumstances that led to his interrogation. Undue prejudice can accrue to a defendant when the prior-conviction evidence is so similar to the criminal proceedings that brought defendant under the glare of police scrutiny, that the evidence risks unduly prejudicing the jury's fair hearing of the defendant's version of what transpired. In taking the approach that it could not sanitize Hamilton's prior conviction because it was for an offense that was not the same or similar to the one for which he was being tried, the trial court unduly restricted the sanitization remedy. The trial court erred in concluding that it had no authority to ameliorate the undue prejudice to Hamilton through sanitization of the earlier conviction. The court should have balanced the parties' interests in respect of the prior-conviction evidence, as permitted by Sands and Evidence Rule 609. (Pp. 17-20).
4. This Court does not suggest that Brunson should be expanded expansively to require sanitization for all prior convictions or even for a particular subcategory of offenses. Because the subject of sanitization and its appropriate use would benefit from a full examination, the Court refers to its Evidence Rules Committee the question whether sanitization of prior convictions should be expanded and, if so, the extent to which the Committee recommends an expanded category of mandatory, or of discretionary, sanitization of prior convictions. (Pp. 20-21).
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Lavecchia
Credibility, of the utmost importance for any witness, takes on heightened significance when the witness is the defendant in a criminal trial. Our rules of evidence allow a witness's prior convictions to be admitted for impeachment purposes despite the obvious prejudice that flows from such evidence, particularly for a criminal defendant. See N.J.R.E. 609. That said, trial courts retain discretion to prevent the occurrence of undue prejudice from prior-conviction evidence. Evidence Rule 609 provides that "[f]or the purpose of affecting the credibility of any witness, the witness' conviction of a crime shall be admitted unless excluded by the judge as remote or for other causes." Ibid. (emphasis added); see also State v. Sands, 76 N.J. 127, 144-45 (1978) (allowing court to consider age and nature of prior crime, when weighing relevance of conviction against prejudice to defendant, in determining whether to admit prior conviction). Even when a prior conviction is admissible, the trial court must determine whether the jury should be shielded nevertheless from the prior conviction's details.
In State v. Brunson, 132 N.J. 377, 391 (1993), we held that when the State introduces a prior conviction that is the same as or similar to the offense charged, the court should prevent the jury from hearing the specifics of the prior offense. Such convictions are required to be "sanitized," thereby allowing the jury to learn only limited information about the conviction, including the date, degree, and number of offenses of a defendant. Id. at 391-92. Sanitization protects a defendant from the risk that a jury will be influenced by knowledge of the prior conviction for the same or a similar offense when determining whether to convict the defendant on the new charge.
See id. at 392. The question here is whether that is the limit of a trial court's authority to sanitize a ...