Ohler v. United States

PETITIONER: Ohler
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Massachusetts Office for Administration and Finance

DOCKET NO.: 98-9828
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 529 US 753 (2000)
ARGUED: Mar 20, 2000
DECIDED: May 22, 2000

ADVOCATES:
Benjamin L. Coleman - Argued the cause for petitioner
Barbara B. McDowell - Department of Justice, argued the cause for respondent

Facts of the case

In 1997, Maria Ohler was arrested and charged with importation of marijuana and possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, after a customs inspector noticed that someone had tampered with one of Ohler's van interior panels and discovered approximately 81 pounds of marijuana. Before the trial, the government filed in limine motions to admit Ohler's prior felony conviction as character evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) and as impeachment evidence under Rule 609(a)(1). Also before the trial, the District Court denied the motion to admit the conviction as character evidence. After the beginning of the trail, the court ruled that if Ohler testified, evidence of her prior conviction would be admissible under Rule 609(a)(1). While testifying, Ohler admitted on direct examination that she had been convicted of possession of methamphetamine in 1993. Subsequently, Ohler was found guilty. On appeal, Ohler challenged the District Court's in limine ruling, allowing the government to use her prior conviction for impeachment purposes. In affirming, the Court of Appeals held that Ohler waived her objection by introducing evidence of the conviction during her direct examination.

Question

Does a defendant waive her right to appeal a ruling granting the government's motion to introduce evidence of a prior conviction under Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1), if she introduces the prior conviction while testifying on direct examination?

Media for Ohler v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 20, 2000 in Ohler v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 22, 2000 in Ohler v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 98-9828 Maria Ohler v. the United States.

Maria Ohler was arrested and charged with importation of marijuana and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

Before trial the District Court granted the government’s motion in limine seeking to use Ohler’s earlier felony conviction to impeach her if she took the stand.

She did testify and admitted on direct examination that she had been previously convicted of possession of methamphetamine.

The jury convicted her on both counts.

On appeal she challenged the District Court's in limine ruling admitting evidence of her prior felony conviction.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that she had waived her objection to the ruling by introducing evidence of the prior conviction herself on direct examination.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm.

Generally a party introducing evidence cannot complain on appeal that the evidence was erroneously admitted.

Ohler argues that this rule does not apply in this situation, because it unfairly deprives defendants of the opportunity to mitigate the affect of the anticipated impeachment by introducing the prior conviction evidence themselves on direct.

We do not agree with this, both the government and the criminal defendant have to make certain choices during the course of a trail, including whether to introduce evidence of the defendant’s prior conviction.

Due to the structure of the trial the government need not make its decision until after the defendant is testified and the government has appraised the effect of the defendant’s testimony.

Thus, any harm flowing from a District Court’s pre-trail ruling is wholly speculative.

A defendant is harmed from an erroneous ruling only if the government actually introduces the prior conviction evidence on cross-examination.

In our view, there is nothing unfair about applying the general rule that a party introducing evidence cannot challenge its admission on appeal to this situation and putting the defendant to a choice in accordance with the normal rules of trial.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Stevens, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer have joined.