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Earlier this year, in Old Chief v. United States, the Supreme Court finally resolved a circuit split on a nagging evidentiary issue: When a defendant charged with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm offers to satisfy one of the statute's elements by stipulating to the existence of a prior felony conviction, may the government decline the stipulation and prove the existence and the nature of that prior felony?

The question of evidence law resolved in Old Chief is not particularly earth-shattering. Indeed, while the Court divided five to four on the issue, neither Justice Souter's opinion for the Court nor Justice O'Connor's dissent ventured beyond a relatively narrow doctrinal analysis. Evidence as to the nature of a defendant's prior felony conviction is indeed relevant, the Court reasoned, but the risk of unfair prejudice it presents far outweighs the probative value, once the defendant's proffered concession is considered as an alternative. Therefore, where a § 922(g)(1) defendant is willing to admit having a prior felony conviction, the government may not prove what that conviction was for. Save for its categorical approach to what generally is a fact-sensitive matter, the decision is of a piece with so many judicial applications of Federal Rule of Evidence 403 (or its state analogues), which, for fear of jury misuse, bar compelling proof on issues not seriously in dispute.


Constitutional Law | Criminal Law | Law


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