In many criminal cases, the evidence presented at trial boils down to one witness accusing the person on trial of committing an illegal act. For example, in some rape cases, the prosecution's main evidence consists of the alleged rape victim's testimony that the accused individual is the man who raped her. It sometimes happens, though, that the person making the accusation has previously made false accusations against either the person on trial or against other people. When that happens, it would seem only right that the jury deciding the case should be allowed to hear about those previous false allegations so that it can better judge the credibility of the person making the accusation. In Florida, however, jurors are rarely allowed to hear such evidence.
Why not, you may well ask. The recent case of Pantoja v. State of Florida attempts to answer that particular question.
Mr. Pantoja was charged with sexual battery and lewd or lascivious molestation. At his trial, he intended to present evidence that the alleged victim had previously accused her uncle (who was not on trial) of molesting her but then later admitted that her uncle had not, in fact, done so. The trial judge ruled that Pantoja could not present such evidence.
When the case later reached the First District Court of Appeal, that appellate court agreed with the trial judge that such evidence was indeed inadmissible because of the "well-settled rule that a witness' credibility may not be attacked by proof that she committed specific acts of misconduct that did not end in a criminal conviction." In other words, because the alleged victim's recantation of her accusation against her uncle did not result in a criminal conviction, Pantoja was not allowed to present evidence of that recantation at his trial.
Florida's First District Court of Appeal is not the only appellate court in Florida to rule that a witness' credibility may not be attacked by proof that the witness committed specific acts of misconduct that did not result in a criminal conviction.
For example, in the case of Washington v. State of Florida, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that the trial judge was correct when he refused to allow the defendant to present evidence at his trial that the alleged victim in that particular case had previously filed a false police report in another, unrelated case.
Fortunately, Florida's Second District Court of Appeal sees things a little differently. In my next article, I will discuss two cases decided by that appellate court, both cases reaching a different conclusion than that reached in Pantoja and Washington.