It is one of the hallmarks of our judicial system that everyone is entitled to the same level of fairness in their access to the courts as everyone else. But sometimes, people are afraid to pursue their rights because they are afraid that things they have done in their past–particularly crimes–may be used against them.
For the first time, however, Illinois has joined the majority of states in enacting procedures to clarify what aspects of your criminal record can and cannot be used against you in a civil case. These issues are covered by Illinois Rule of Evidence 609, which came into effect on January 1, 2011.
Generally speaking, evidence of prior criminal convictions can only be brought up in a civil case to challenge your credibility as a witness – and regardless of what type of crime this is, only a conviction (or release from custody, whichever is more recent) within the last ten years is fair game.
From there, the Rule separates the use of convictions into 2 categories – misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors can only be used against you if it is a crime involving dishonesty.
Generally speaking, any felony from within the last ten years can be used to challenge your credibility, but in order for this to be true, it has to pass a test for relevancy. What this means is that a Judge weighs how useful the conviction really is in challenging someone’s credibility against how harmful it would be to let a jury hear about a felony that doesn’t really have anything to do with truthfulness. Take a felony drug conviction, for instance – does the fact alone that it is a felony mean that it can be used to challenge someone’s credibility? Not in Illinois, at least. Illinois courts in cases such as the 1995 matter of O’Brien v. Sandrock have found that a prior felony drug conviction has little or nothing to do with someone’s ability to tell the truth, and even though it is a felony, the stigma it carries with it tips the scales in favor of refusing to let an attorney question you with it.
A skilled lawyer will know how to bring this to a judge’s attention at the right time before trial and keep any mention of it from trial in what is called a “motion in limine” to protect their client’s rights in the process and to prevent the jury from hopefully ever hearing about criminal past out of fairness for the issues at hand.
We can answer questions like these for you and help you through such matters – and would be honored to so do. You can contact us here 24/7/365 (and we really mean that as we will answer our phone) if you have any questions and to learn how we may be able to help you.