Prior Conviction Impeachment: Is Reform Finally Afoot?

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The Appeal

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At a recent conference of Washington State judges, a panel of experts discussed prohibiting “impeachment by prior conviction” — that is, the practice of attorneys using prior convictions to attack the credibility of witnesses, including criminal defendants. This practice is used in the federal system and in all but three states. In 1963, Kansas enacted a statute prohibiting the impeachment of criminal defendants, as long as they don’t proclaim their trustworthiness on the stand. In 1971, Hawaii’s State Supreme Court banned the practice, ruling that it violated the state and federal right to testify. Montana followed in 1976, extending the ban to all witnesses.

Then came forty years of stagnation.

Change may now be afoot, at least in Washington. Panelists and audiences at the conference offered several critiques of the practice, particularly with regard to criminal defendants.