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Criminal Convictions in Civil Cases In Florida

If one of the witnesses or parties to a civil trial has a criminal conviction can they be questioned about it? They can – with certain exceptions.

Here’s what Florida’s law says on this subject:

– A party may attack the credibility of any witness, including an accused, by evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime if the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of 1 year under the law under which the witness was convicted, or if the crime involved dishonesty or a false statement regardless of the punishment, with the following exceptions:

– Evidence of any such conviction is inadmissible in a civil trial if it is so remote in time as to have no bearing on the present character of the witness.

First off this procedure is called “impeachment.” The evidence of the conviction is allowed into the trial to attack the person’s credibility – not to demonstrate the person has a propensity for certain conduct.

The “remote” part of the law hits on the question – how old is too old? Are you allowed to bring in a 30 year old conviction? No. What about a 20 year old conviction? Probably not. Standards in legal practice have interpreted remote to mean anything past 10 years. However, that time can be tolled if, for instance, the person spent 5 years in prison. Then the court may allow a 15 year old conviction in.

Which brings us to the next issue, of when a prior criminal conviction can be brought into a civil trial. The judge has discretion to admit or deny such evidence.
The trial court can disallow a conviction if it is too remote, but also if it is too prejudicial. This is generally an issue when the conviction is being considered as evidence against the plaintiff or defendant’s credibility, rather than just a witness.

The judge has wide discretion but the trial court can be reversed by a higher appellate court, if the decision of the judge in the trial court was deemed erroneous.

A perfect example is the 1993 case of Children’s Palace v. Johnson, which lawyers often rely on. In that case the plaintiff, Johnson, brought a negligence suit against the Children’s Palace Store to recover for injuries she received when a rack fell on her while she was shopping in the store. The defense sought to introduce her numerous prior felony and misdemeanor convictions for writing bad checks. The trial court refused to allow the admission of the convictions, and the First District Court of Appeal reversed that verdict. The appellate court held that the more than 40 convictions, between 1970 through 1990, should have been admissible both because they were not so remote as to have “no bearing on plaintiff’s present character” and because the convictions demonstrated a continuing pattern of the same act.

The court also noted that Johnson’s testimony was essential in establishing the facts surrounding her injuries, as well as the extent of her damages. And since there were no other witnesses to the accident, Children’s Palace’s only defense was to attack the credibility of Johnson. Under those circumstances, the appellate court found that the trial court’s refusal to admit the convictions was clearly an abuse of discretion.

This is a very nuanced subject within the law, so call the lawyers that are best able to help guide you through it – look no further than , Goldman, Babboni Fernandez & Walsh. Our unrivaled experience will get you results. It would be our pleasure to review your case for free – just email us at [email protected].

Attorney David Goldman has a strong belief that everyone should be treated fairly and those with the means should do what they can to bring justice in all areas of our society. That belief has led him to help Florida's injured from being taken advantage of by corporations and insurance companies. Since 1989 David Goldman has been fighting for the rights of Floridians both as an attorney and by personally supporting our community.

Criminal Convictions in Civil Cases In Florida

Goldman Babboni Fernandez
Murphy & Walsh

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