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“I don’t want a lawyer to tell me what I cannot do, I hire him to tell me how to do what I want to do.” - J.P. Morgan

Is Honesty Really the Best Policy with Your Family?

Everyone lies a little (except lawyers, of course, all of whom hold themselves to the highest ethical standards). But could being honest with family members actually benefit you in court one day? An appeals panel in Albany said yes in a 3-2 ruling earlier this month. The panel decided that an extended family can be considered a "community" for the purpose of introducing evidence of a witness' reputation for truthfulness in a criminal trial, according to the New York Law Journal.

This means a new trial for Marcos A. Fernandez in People v. Fernandez. Fernandez was accused of raping his eight-year-old niece when he was 17, but a jury acquitted him on the rape charge and convicted him of sexual abuse after the judge refused to admit reputation testimony from his adoptive parents related to their grandniece's reputation for truthfulness. Such testimony is crucial since this case hinges upon the girl's testimony.

The reputation testimony rule states that character testimony concerning a key witness' reputation for truthfulness in a community may be admitted if the community is large enough to permit the witness to have been observed by enough people to provide a reasonable assurance of reliability.

The defendant's attorney argues that the concept of "community" is "very elastic" in regard to accepting reputation testimony in New York, citing one New York judge who found that a bartender was able to testify to the truthfulness of a witness who frequented his neighborhood bar. The prosecution, however, is arguing that this ruling "threatens to open the floodgates to biased reputation testimony from family members."

While this question of whether one's extended family may qualify as a "community" from which reputation testimony could be admitted is one of first impression in New York, one thing is for certain: lying to your family can come back to bite you.

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