12-05-2019 | Legal News

The Admissibility of Criminal Records in a Civil Case

By: Ingrid Johnson


What if you find out your opponent has a criminal record? Can their criminal record be used against them in a civil case?

Generally, a criminal record is not relevant to a civil action for such things as breach of contract or to defend an action for wrongful termination in an employment context. However, there are exceptions to this rule and ways that a crafty attorney can use the opposing party’s criminal records against them. This article describes the Iowa rules of evidence regarding the admissibility of criminal convictions in a civil case.

Character Evidence

In many cases, a party’s criminal convictions do not relate to the facts at issue in a civil lawsuit and therefore are not admissible. However, you may still be able to use their criminal record against them in some cases.

The issue of admissibility of a criminal conviction usually falls under Iowa Rule 1.404 governing character evidence. Under Rule 1.404, evidence of a person’s character is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion, that person acted in accordance with that character trait. For example, evidence that your employee has a criminal conviction for theft is not admissible to prove that your employee stole from your cashbox on a particular occasion. It seems unfair, right?  If the employee has a record of stealing, that could be strong evidence that they stole from you. However, this is exactly why this type of evidence is prohibited. It is too easy to assume that the employee stole again solely because they did so in the past. Instead, the rules of evidence force us to analyze the evidence that they stole from your cashbox on this specific occasion.

The purpose of this rule is to make sure juries are deciding cases on the facts, and not making judgments based on past actions. People change. However, criminal convictions can be admissible for a purpose other than to prove they acted in accordance with that character trait. For example, say you want to prove that you would have fired the employee anyway. Your policy is not to hire people who have a criminal record of theft and that employee only bypassed this rule because they lied on their job application. They failed to disclose their criminal record. In this case, you would be using the criminal conviction for a purpose other than to prove they acted in accordance with that character trait. As a result, the evidence is not barred by Rule 1.404.

However, you still have to go through Rule 1. 403 to admit evidence of a criminal conviction. Generally speaking, if evidence is unfairly prejudicial and not very relevant to the case, Rule 1.403 may kick it out.

Impeachment

What if you don’t have an alternate purpose to admit the criminal conviction?  Well, it’s possible it could still be used for impeachment purposes. Some crimes are relevant to whether the person is truthful or not, and if they are testifying, whether they are a truthful person is relevant.

Rule 1.609 governs the admissibility of evidence for impeachment purposes. There are different rules for impeachment depending on the type of crime, length of punishment, and how long ago it happened.   In general, if the crime is one which involves dishonesty or is more recent, it is more likely that the criminal conviction will be admissible for impeachment purposes. This way, the criminal conviction could still be used to attack the witness’s credibility on the stand.