By William S. Lewis and Lori E. Battern
One of the striking characteristics of our legal system is the right of counsel to impeach the credibility of witnesses. The purpose is to suggest or give an indication to the judge or jury of whether one should believe the witness and what weight they should give to the witness’s testimony. One such form of impeachment is by revealing the witness’s prior criminal convictions. Missouri authorizes this impeachment by statute. R.S.Mo. § 491.050 states “…any prior criminal convictions may be proved to affect his credibility in a civil or criminal case…” In M.A.B. v. Nicely, 909 S.W.2d 669 (Mo. banc 1995), the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted § 491.050 to confer an absolute right in civil proceedings to impeach the credibility of any witness with his or her prior criminal convictions. Unlike federal court, Missouri does not place a limit on the age of convictions that can be used for impeachment. The statute is specific to the use of impeachment by convictions. In civil cases, pleas of guilty and pleas of nolo contendere are insufficient to use for impeachment.
The attorneys at Andereck Evans are well-versed in Missouri’s law related to impeachment of witnesses by prior criminal convictions and have experience successfully utilizing evidence of prior criminal convictions to impeach the opponent’s witnesses. Despite Missouri law arguably being clear that criminal convictions are always admissible to impeach a witness, counsel often attempts to exclude evidence of his or her witness’s prior criminal convictions. The argument made in support of excluding such evidence, despite Missouri’s statute authorizing impeachment by evidence of convictions, is that the criminal convictions are irrelevant and more prejudicial than probative, particularly when the evidence of prior criminal convictions are used to impeach a party.
Attorneys William S. Lewis, Shawn P. Battagler, Megan E. Ray, and Lori E. Battern have recently litigated this issue in multiple jurisdictions throughout Missouri. In many recent cases, trial courts have admitted evidence of prior criminal convictions to impeach witnesses. In those instances where trial courts have refused to admit such evidence, it is vital that the non-prevailing party preserve the matter for appellate review.
Contact the attorneys at Andereck Evans to further discuss this issue.