On February 23, 2009, I posted an article on this site entitled Why Florida Jurors Are Rarely Allowed to Hear Evidence of Previous False Accusations. In that article, I discussed two Florida cases, Pantoja v. State of Florida and Washington v. State of Florida, both of which held that jurors should not have been allowed to hear evidence that a prosecution witness had previously made false accusations against another person. At the conclusion of that article, I noted that Florida's Second District Court of Appeal (fortunately) sees things differently when it comes to allowing jurors to hear such evidence.
For example, in the case of Jaggers v. State of Florida, Mr. Jaggers was charged with committing the crime of sexual battery on three children, all of whom were less than eleven years old. At Jaggers's trial, a key witness for the prosecutor was a ten-year-old girl who testified that Jaggers had put his finger into her rectum three to five years earlier. When Jaggers's lawyer tried to cross-examine the girl about the fact that she had previously accused her own father of sexually assaulting her and then later admitted that her accusation was false, the trial judge did not allow Jaggers's lawyer to do so "on the basis of the very broad general principle of law that the credibility of a witness may not be impeached by proof that the witness has committed specific acts of misconduct."
The Second District Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge erred by not permitting such cross-examination because "[t]here is a long line of authority from this court and others which permits the type of testimony on cross-examination that was prohibited here. Evidence that is relevant to the possible bias, prejudice, motive, intent or corruptness of a witness is nearly always not only admissible, but necessary, where the jury must know of any improper motives of a prosecuting witness in determining that witness' credibility. That is particularly true in the case of allegations of sexual abuse where there is no independent evidence of the abuse and the defendant's sole defense is either fabrication or mistake on the part of the alleged victims."
Ten years later, the Second District Court of Appeal was presented with a similar issue in the case of Cliburn v. State of Florida. In that case, Mr. Cliburn was charged with burglarizing his former girlfriend's apartment and of violating a domestic violence injunction. The evidence at trial boiled down to a swearing match between Cliburn and the former girlfriend. In spite of that, Cliburn's attorney was not allowed to cross-examine the former girlfriend about the fact that she had previously filed a false kidnapping charge against another boyfriend.
On appeal, the Court ruled that not permitting such cross-examination was error because "evidence relevant to a prosecuting witness's possible bias or corruptness is admissible. When assessing a key witness's credibility, the jury must know about any improper motives."
It would certainly appear that Jaggers and Cliburn were decided correctly since it is settled law in the United States that cross-examination is nearly always proper where it exposes a witness's bias, prejudice, or ulterior motive to testify. As the United States Supreme Court stated in the case of Davis v. Alaska, "[a] more particular attack on the witness' credibility is effected by means of cross-examination directed toward revealing possible biases, prejudices, or ulterior motives of the witness as they may relate directly to issues or personalities in the case at hand. The partiality of a witness is subject to exploration at trial, and is 'always relevant as discrediting the witness and affecting the weight of his testimony.' . . . We have recognized that the exposure of a witness' motivation in testifying is a proper and important function of the constitutionally protected right of cross-examination."