Delaying Ruling on Admissibility of Prior Convictions Until Testimony

In People v. Patrick, No. 104077, 233 Ill. 2d 62, 908 N.E.2d 1, 2009 Ill.330 Ill. Dec. 149 (January 23, 2009), our supreme court addressed the issue of whether a trial court abuses its discretion by delaying ruling on the admissibility of prior convictions until after the defendant's testimony. The court analyzed the cases of two defendants, Robert Patrick and Ezekiel Phillips. Robert Patrick was charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and aggravated discharge of a firearm. Before trial, Patrick filed a motion in limine seeking to bar the State from introducing evidence of his prior convictions for purposes of impeachment. The trial judge summarily refused to consider the admissibility of the defendant's prior convictions, holding that it was his procedure in every case, without exception, was not to give advisory opinions. The defendant testified, and his testimony was impeached with three prior convictions for possession of a controlled substance. The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. Our supreme court recognized that defendants benefit from an early ruling on the admissibility of their prior convictions before they decide to testify. Patrick, 2009 8. Early rulings provide defendants with the "critical decision whether to testify on their own behalf and to gauge the strength of their testimony." Patrick, 2009 8. In addition, early rulings permit defendants and their counsel to make reasoned tactical decisions in planning the defense by informing the jury whether the defendant will testify and anticipatorily disclosing prior convictions during the defendant's direct examination, thereby reducing the prejudicial effect. Patrick, 2009 9. The court acknowledged that, "in most cases, the trial judge will possess the information necessary to conduct a Montgomery hearing before trial." Patrick, 2009 13. It concluded that "a trial court's failure to rule on a motion in limine on the admissibility of prior convictions when it has sufficient information to make a ruling constitutes an abuse of discretion." Patrick, 2009 13. In all but the most complicated cases, a judge will have enough information before trial to weigh the probative value of admitting the prior conviction against the danger of unfair prejudice to the defendant. Patrick, 2009 14. The supreme court held that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to exercise any specific discretion. Patrick, 2009 16. "There is no justification for a trial judge's blanket policy to withhold ruling on all motions in limine on the admissibility of prior convictions until after a defendant's testimony." Patrick, 2009 16. Therefore, the court concluded that the trial court's application of a blanket policy amounted to an abuse of discretion. Patrick, 2009 16.