The Admissibility of a Criminal Conviction in a Utah Trial

Evidence of a Criminal Conviction Involving Dishonesty

Rule 608 allows admission of a past criminal conviction in an unrelated trial under certain circumstances.
Evidence of a past criminal conviction may be admissible in a different trial under Rule 608.

Dr. Taylor started treating Mr. Robinson in 2003 for chronic back pain and degenerative disc disease. He prescribed various pain medications to Mr. Robinson over the next three years, but Mr. Robinson developed a drug tolerance that needed significantly larger doses to help with his pain. At his last visit in 2006, Dr. Taylor prescribed a daily dosage of 140 milligrams of methadone to Mr. Robinson. Just two weeks later he was found dead at his home from acute methadone toxicity. The Robinsons brought this suit against Dr. Taylor for wrongful death of their father caused by medical malpractice.

After Mr. Robinson’s death, but prior to trial, Dr. Taylor was charged under federal law for illegally distributing a controlled substance, unrelated to Mr. Robinson’s death. Dr. Taylor was meeting an individual multiple times in a parking lot to give him prescription drugs for cash. Accordingly, he was charged with two federal felony drug counts, pled guilty to one, and was sentenced to prison. The Robinsons introduced evidence of Dr. Taylor’s felony conviction so that they could impeach his deposition testimony. Dr. Taylor then filed a motion in limine to exclude that evidence, but the trial court denied the motion. The jury found that Dr. Taylor breached the standard of care, and that breach was the proximate cause of Mr. Robinson’s death.

On Appeal, the Supreme Court of Utah held that the trial court erred when it admitted Dr. Taylor’s criminal conviction. Rule 608(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence permits impeachment only by specific acts that did not result in a criminal conviction. Thus, the admission of Dr. Taylor’s conviction under rule 608 was an abuse of discretion. The Court discussed that a prior conviction can be automatically admitted into evidence only when the elements of the crime require proving a dishonest act or false statement per Rule 609 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. The elements of the criminal act determine its admissibility, not the manner in which the offense is committed. The offense for which Dr. Taylor was convicted, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a), does not include elements of a dishonest act or false statement as part of the statutory offense. In this case, the Court concluded that the district court abused its discretion by admitting the criminal conviction because the danger of unfair prejudice significantly outweighed any probative value it may have.

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