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Introduction of Nolo Plea to Challenge Prisoner’s Credibility was Error

Introduction of Nolo Plea to Challenge Prisoner’s Credibility was Error

by David M. Reutter

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held in January 2014 that a Pennsylvania federal district court erred when it allowed into evidence a nolo contendere (no contest) plea for the purpose of challenging the credibility of a prisoner who claimed guards had used excessive force.

While held in the Restrictive Housing Unit at the Northampton County Prison, prisoner Iman Sharif was involved in an altercation with several guards. The facts related to that confrontation were highly contested.

Guard Nathan Picone claimed that as he was collecting dinner trays, Sharif “sucker punched” him. Picone testified that after he was struck, he tried to protect himself from additional punches and kicks. Another guard, Brian Potance, assisted Picone and entered Sharif’s cell, hitting him with an open hand in an attempt to “get him to the ground.”

In contrast, Sharif said he was talking to Picone in an attempt to get “under his skin” when Picone punched him. He testified that Potance and guard Thomas Pinto joined Picone in hitting and choking him; he also said he was assaulted after being placed in a restraint chair.

Following the incident, Sharif was charged with and pleaded nolo contendere to aggravated assault in connection with the March 11, 2009 altercation with Picone and the other guards. Nonetheless, he filed a civil rights action alleging the guards had used excessive force. Prior to trial he moved in limine to prohibit introduction of his nolo plea, which was denied by the district court, and the jury ruled for the defendants.

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 410, evidence of a nolo contendere plea is not admissible in criminal or civil proceedings. This is due to the fact that “a nolo plea is not a factual admission that the pleader committed a crime.” Instead, it is a statement of “unwillingness to contest” the charges and “acceptance of punishment.”

“Regardless of whether he engaged in assaultive conduct, Sharif remains free to contend that the reaction of the corrections officers was such that it constituted excessive force in comparison to the threat he posed,” the Third Circuit wrote.

The appellate court found the error was not harmless, because “a significant basis for prohibiting the evidence of the plea is the fear that it could be improperly viewed as an admission, and, unfortunately, that is how the District Court viewed it.”

Nolo pleas are not admissions of facts or guilt. “Consequently, Sharif’s claim that he did nothing wrong was not inconsistent with his previous plea of nolo contendere, and, thus, would not be relevant in assessing his character for truthfulness,” the Court of Appeals stated.

The Court then turned to admission of the conviction itself, which Sharif argued was in violation of Federal Rule of Evidence 609. A conviction is a legal finding, and Rule 609 “permits admission for impeachment purposes of evidence of convictions.” Although crimes of violence “are less probative of honesty than are crimes involving deceit or fraud,” they may be admitted in some cases.

The Third Circuit held that admission of Sharif’s prior convictions was allowable, but not his conviction related to the March 2009 incident, as it was closely related to the issue at trial and “the very incident at the center of his civil claim.” As such, “the probative value [of the conviction] was outweighed by the prejudice of admitting that evidence.”

Accordingly, a new trial was ordered with instructions to prohibit admission of Sharif’s nolo plea or conviction related to the March 2009 incident. The case remains pending retrial on remand. See: Sharif v. Picone, 740 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Sharif v. Picone