Proposed Changes to New Jersey Rule of Evidence 609

A New Jersey Supreme Court committee has proposed changes to N.J.R.E. 609. The committee hopes to limit the use of past crimes evidence to impeach the defendant’s credibility at trial.   Specifically, the committee has proposed amending New Jersey Rule 609 to restrict the use of evidence of convictions that are more than 10 years old unless their probative value is judged to outweigh their prejudicial effect.

The committee recommended this change in the aftermath of the 2012 New Jersey Supreme Court decision in State v. Harris.  Derrick Harris was charged with robbery and burglary in 2007.  At his trial, a judge allowed the prosecution to introduce into evidence Harris’ 1997 drug conviction. The prosecutor used the drug charges along with previous disorderly persons convictions to disprove Harris’ credibility on the stand.  After the case, the Supreme Court selected a committee to weigh in on the current status of N.J.R.E. 609 and whether or not it needs to be amended.  Currently, N.J.R.E 609 allows any and all evidence of a witness’ criminal conviction to be presented in trial “unless excluded by the judge as remote or for other causes.”

The newly proposed language of the rule would mandate that any evidence of a conviction from more than 10 years prior could not be used in court.  The ten-year range would be determined from the date of the conviction or from the date of a release from prison, whichever was later.  The proposed revision allows for crimes older than ten years to be admitted only if those crimes are related to the present charges or have intervening circumstances that connect the two cases.  The committee’s plan also allows for the admission of older crimes that may prove a dishonest character, such as fraud, even if the conviction is more than ten years old.

The proposed law gives all defendants and witnesses an equal chance to be heard in court, especially those who may have had some youthful indiscretions in their past, or who have undergone prison time or rehabilitation in the years after their convictions.