When Are Prior Convictions Admissible at Trial?

In State v. Lawson, the SC Court of Appeals reversed a defendant’s conviction for breaking into a motor vehicle, where the trial court allowed the prosecutor to introduce evidence of his fingerprint card and the fact that the fingerprints were taken at Kirkland Correctional Institute.

Allowing testimony that a defendant’s fingerprints were taken while in prison was nothing more than a way to permit the prosecutor to tell the jury that the defendant had been arrested before – not only arrested but convicted for something serious enough that he ended up in prison…

Can a prosecutor tell jurors about a defendant’s prior convictions? Is so, when?

When Are a Defendant’s Prior Convictions Admissible?

The general rule is that, if the defendant does not testify, the jury does not hear about their prior record. There are exceptions, like when the prior conviction is an element of the crime that the defendant is on trial for.

If the defendant testifies, then the prosecutor is allowed to cross-examine him or her about their prior convictions if the convictions:

  • Are less than ten years old;
  • Carry a year or more as a potential sentence; or
  • Are convictions for crimes involving dishonesty.

Of course, there are exceptions, and this is the general rule.

What’s Wrong with the Testimony About the Fingerprint Card?

The prosecutor is entitled to introduce evidence of fingerprints, and, if they do, they are required to authenticate the fingerprints and tie them to the defendant.

Authentication, however, does not require the prosecutor to inform the jurors that the fingerprints were obtained in a correctional facility – a place the defendant would not have been unless he had been previously convicted of an offense serious enough to land him in prison.

Other, similar situations include:

  • Testimony that fingerprints were compared to the defendant’s using a fingerprint card “obtained from SLED records” was okay – State v. Council;
  • A mugshot including a sign around defendant’s neck that said “Sptbg. Co. Sheriff” was not okay – State v. Tate;
  • Use of a mugshot that showed only the defendant’s head and neck and was not identifiable as a mugshot was okay – State v. Stephens;
  • Deputy’s testimony that the defendant “had warrants” when the deputy was looking for him was okay – the Court says that the jurors may have assumed it was warrants for the current case – State v. Thompson; and
  • In State v. Anderson, the Court affirmed despite testimony that a fingerprint card had originated from a law enforcement agency but noted that the issue of whether it was “prior bad act” testimony was not preserved for appeal.

SC Criminal Defense Attorney in Charleston, SC

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