Using Witness's Prior Convictions to Show Bias

In United States v. Lawson (2d Cir. 1982) 683 F.2d 688 , the court held it was error for the district court to prevent the defendant from cross-examining a prosecution witness about her conviction for prostitution and about whether another prosecution witness had been her pimp. While the evidence would not have been admissible under the rule that permitted evidence of a witness's prior conviction involving an act of dishonesty or false statement if offered to show her character for truthfulness (Fed. Rules Evid., rule 609(a)(2), 28 U.S.C.), it was admissible in that case because it "was designed to show not that she was a prostitute, and, therefore, a liar, but that she was a prostitute and that the other witness, as her pimp, might have caused her to lie about defendant's involvement" because the other witness had animus toward the defendant and had not yet been sentenced on his negotiated plea deal. (Lawson, at p. 693.) In Howard v. State (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 1981) 397 So.2d 997, 998, the court held that no error occurred when a defense witness in a trial for battery on a peace officer and resisting arrest was impeached with her obstruction of justice conviction because it was relevant to show the witness had a bias against the police. In Scott v. Com. (1997) 25 Va. App. 36 486 S.E.2d 120, 122-123, the court held that error occurred, albeit harmless under the circumstances, when defense counsel was not allowed to question a prosecution jailhouse informant about the nature of his several convictions unless they involved moral turpitude. Although Virginia law allowed impeachment by prior felony and misdemeanor convictions involving moral turpitude in order to undermine a witness's character for veracity, that rule did not apply when considering such evidence in order to show witness bias. (Id., 486 S.E.2d at p. 122.) In People v. Adams (1983) 149 Cal.App.3d 1190, the court held that the potential bias of a prosecution witness in a forgery case could be shown by evidence that he was on probation following his juvenile adjudication of grand theft because his status as a probationer left him vulnerable to law enforcement pressure. In People v. Bradley (1981) 115 Cal.App.3d 744, the defendant on trial for armed robbery was not allowed to ask a prosecution eyewitness about the witness's one-year-old Texas conviction for car theft. The defendant argued the evidence was relevant to show the bias of the witness, who the defendant claimed had been the actual robber. The appellate court noted that the defendant had "correctly stated the law," but refused to find error because instead of barring the evidence, the trial court simply deferred the matter for further inquiry into both the nature of the Texas conviction and the facts required to show the existence of bias. (Id. at p. 749.) In People v. Gonzalez (1990) 51 Cal.3d 1179, 1210 275 Cal. Rptr. 729, 800 P.2d 1159, the defendant complained that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury that the prosecution testimony of a jailhouse informant should be viewed with distrust. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the standard credibility instructions were sufficient because the jurors knew the informant was a convicted murderer with a motive to lie. In People v. Buzzell (1940) 15 Cal.2d 654 104 P.2d 503, a defendant's alibi witnesses were impeached generally for veracity with certain prior felony convictions. On appeal, the defendant complained that the prosecutor went too far by asking those witnesses about how those convictions involved crimes committed with the defendant, which led them to spend jail time with the defendant as well. Because those topics were relevant to the bias of the defense witnesses, the court held that questions did not "exceed the bounds of propriety or result in a miscarriage of justice." (Id. at pp. 660-661.)