Luce v. United States
469 U.S. 38 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38 (1984)

Luce v. United States

No. 83-912

Argued October 3, 1984

Decided December 10, 1984

469 U.S. 38

Syllabus

During his trial in Federal District Court on federal drug charges, petitioner moved to preclude the Government from using a prior state conviction to impeach him if he testified. Petitioner made no commitment to testify if the motion were granted and no proffer as to what his testimony would be. The District Court denied the motion in limine, ruling that the prior conviction fell within the category of permissible impeachment evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a). Petitioner did not testify, and the jury returned guilty verdicts. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that since petitioner did not testify, it would not consider petitioner's contention that the District Court abused its discretion in denying his motion in limine without making a finding, as required by Rule 609(a)(1), that the probative value of the prior conviction outweighed its prejudicial effect.

Held: To raise and preserve for review the claim of improper impeachment with a prior conviction, a defendant must testify. To perform the weighing of the prior conviction's probative value against its prejudicial effect, as required by Rule 609(a)(1), the reviewing court must know the precise nature of the defendant's testimony, which is unknowable when, as here, the defendant does not testify. Any possible harm flowing from a district court's in limine ruling permitting impeachment by a prior conviction is wholly speculative. On the record in this case, it is conjectural whether the District Court would have allowed the Government to impeach with the prior conviction. Moreover, when the defendant does not testify, the reviewing court has no way of knowing whether the Government would have sought so to impeach, and cannot assume that the trial court's adverse ruling motivated the defendant's decision not to testify. Even if these difficulties could be surmounted, the reviewing court would still face the question of harmless error. If in limine rulings under Rule 609(a) were reviewable, almost any error would result in automatic reversal, since the reviewing court could not logically term "harmless" an error that presumptively kept the defendant from testifying. Requiring a defendant to testify in order to preserve Rule 609(a) claims enables the reviewing court to determine the impact any erroneous impeachment may have in light of the record as a whole, and

Page 469 U. S. 39

tends to discourage making motions to exclude impeachment evidence solely to "plant" reversible error in the event of conviction. Pp. 469 U. S. 41-43.

713 F.2d 1236, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except STEVENS, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 469 U. S. 43.

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