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PA Superior Court: Prosecution May Cross Examine Defendant on Prior Arrests if Defendant Opens the Door


Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Bullock, holding that where the defendant testifies in an unprompted manner that they’ve never been arrested before, the prosecution may then introduce evidence of prior arrests as impeachment evidence. Although there is a general rule that a defendant may not be cross examined on prior criminal convictions, that rule gives way to false testimony by the defendant which makes the prior convictions admissible impeachment evidence.

The Facts of Bullock

In 2018, the defendant’s children found the defendant passed out on the porch of their home. The children called the police. The police came to the scene, and they found the defendant stumbling, going in and out of consciousness, and smelling of PCP. The police arrested the defendant.

The children were placed with their grandparents. They then disclosed that the defendant, their mother, had allegedly been abusing them. The Commonwealth charged her with aggravated assault, strangulation, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment, and three counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

The Criminal Trial

The defendant proceeded by way of bench trial. The trial court found her guilty of the endangering the welfare of a child counts, but it acquitted her of everything else. The court sentenced her to time served to 23 months’ incarceration followed by a year of probation. She filed timely post-sentence motions. The court denied those motions, and she appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

The Issue on Appeal

At trial, the Commonwealth introduced evidence of the defendant’s prior conviction for public drunkenness. Her defense attorney objected to admission of that evidence, but the trial court overruled the objection and allowed the evidence to be admitted.

Pennsylvania has a statute which generally prohibits the Commonwealth from cross-examining the defendant themselves about prior convictions, even where the defendant testifies. The statute provides:

§ 5918. Examination of defendant as to other offenses

No person charged with any crime and called as a witness in his own behalf, shall be asked, or if asked, shall be required to answer, any question tending to show that he has committed, or been charged with, or been convicted of any offense other than the one wherewith he shall then be charged, or tending to show that he has been of bad character or reputation . . .

The statute, however, has exceptions that allow the Commonwealth to do so when:

(1) he shall have at such trial, personally or by counsel, asked questions of the witness for the prosecution with a view to establish his own good reputation or character, or has given evidence tending to prove his own good character or reputation; or

(2) he shall have testified at such trial against a co-defendant, charged with the same offense.

Here, the defense attorney asked the defendant if she used PCP or alcohol on the day in question, and she denied that she had consumed either. Later, on cross-examination, the prosecutor asked if she had ever used drugs or alcohol, and she denied that, as well. Obviously, that was untrue as the defendant had a conviction for public drunkenness. The prosecution then the evidence of that conviction.

Additionally, while testifying on direct examination, the defendant testified that she felt terrible that day, was not really sure what happened, and that she had never been arrested before. That was not true, however, as she had the prior conviction.

Following the denial of her post-sentence motions, she appealed the conviction to the Superior Court and challenged the trial court’s decision to allow the prior conviction into evidence.

The Superior Court’s Ruling on Appeal

On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the conviction. The Court ruled that the trial court should not have allowed the prosecutor to ask if she ever used drugs or had ever used alcohol. She had not denied ever using them on direct examination; she had only denied using them that day. She had, however, suggested that she had never been arrested before. This was not true, and that statement did not come in response to the Commonwealth’s questioning but rather the questioning of her own attorney. Therefore, the Commonwealth properly impeached her with evidence of her prior conviction in response to her insistence that she had never been arrested before. The Superior Court therefore denied the appeal.

It is possible, however, that a subsequent lawyer could challenge trial counsel’s performance in a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition as trial counsel should not have asked a question which opened the door to a prior conviction. Thus, the issue may be one of ineffective assistance of counsel rather than error by the trial court. Either way, the Court ruled that the conviction will stand.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Murder. We have also won criminal appeals and PCRAs in state and federal court. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.


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