Character evidence

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Character evidence is a term used in the law of evidence to describe any testimony or document submitted for the purpose of proving that a person acted in a particular way on a particular occasion based on the character or disposition of that person. In the United States, Federal Rule of Evidence 404 maps out its permissible and prohibited uses in trials. Three factors typically determine the admissibility of character evidence:

  1. the purpose the character evidence is being used for
  2. the form in which the character evidence is offered
  3. the type of proceeding (civil or criminal) in which the character evidence is offered

Purpose[edit]

In the United States, character evidence may be offered at trial to

1. prove character, if character is a substantive issue in the litigation
admissibility of character evidence to prove character is not affected by the case's civil or criminal nature
2. prove, through circumstantial evidence, an aspect of an individual's conduct
character evidence's admissibility as circumstantial evidence is influenced by the case's civil or criminal nature
3. impeach or strengthen the credibility of a witness

Character may be a substantive issue in defamation suits, in lawsuits alleging negligent hiring or negligent entrustment, in child custody cases, as well as in loss of consortium cases; character evidence is thus admissible to prove the substantive issues that arise in these types of lawsuits.

If used as circumstantial evidence, FRE 404(a)(1) renders inadmissible character evidence offered to prove that an individual acted "in accordance with" a character or trait "on a particular occasion."[1] It lists several exceptions which apply depending on whether the proceeding is civil or criminal, whether the defense or prosecution is offering the character evidence, and what purpose it is being offered for.

Form[edit]

Character evidence may be offered, depending on the type of proceeding, party offering, and purported purpose, explained below, in three forms:

  1. as opinion
  2. as reputation evidence, and
  3. as evidence of specific instances of conduct

Type of proceeding[edit]

Civil trial[edit]

In the majority of U.S. jurisdictions, character evidence is inadmissible in civil suits when being used as circumstantial evidence to prove that a person acted in conformity with his or her character; it is considered to be an unfair basis from which to attempt to prove that an individual behaved in a particular way on a particular occasion.[2] Another way of looking at this is that character evidence is only admissible in a majority of jurisdictions in a civil trial if character is actually a substantive issue in the case (negligent hiring; negligent entrustment, child custody cases, loss of consortium cases), or to impeach a witness.

A minority of U.S. jurisdictions, however, permit defendants in assault and battery and fraudulent misconduct civil cases to introduce character evidence as circumstantial evidence to prove that a person acted in conformity with his or her character.[3]

Criminal trial[edit]

Character evidence offered by the prosecution[edit]

In the United States, character evidence is inadmissible in a criminal trial if first offered by the prosecution as circumstantial evidence to show that a defendant is likely to have committed the crime with which he or she is charged—the prosecution may not, in other words, initiate character evidence that shows defendant's propensity to commit a crime. However the prosecution may introduce character evidence for certain limited purposes after the defendant does so—after the defendant has "opened the door"—through the permissible methods and purposes explained below in "Character evidence offered by the defendant," to rebut what defendant tried showing through character evidence, and to "offer evidence of the defendant's same trait."[4]

FRE 404, in addition to dictating character evidence's permissible use in federal courts, also bars the prosecution's admission of "crimes, wrongs, or other acts"[5] to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith (propensity). Evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts is available for "non-character purposes," such as motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident. In a criminal prosecution, the defendant can request to receive notice of this type of evidence if the prosecution intends to admit it at trial. [6]

  • Note that under California Evidence Code ("CEC") §1101(b), in addition to proving MIMIC elements, the prosecution may admit evidence of a victim's prior sexual conduct in a case brought for an unlawful sexual act or attempted unlawful sexual act, to show that the defendant "did not reasonably and in good faith believe that the victim consented."[7]

Character evidence offered by the defendant[edit]

Character evidence is admissible in a criminal trial if offered by a defendant as circumstantial evidence—through reputation or opinion evidence—to show his or her own character, as long as the character evidence the defendant seeks to introduce is relevant to the crime with which the defendant is charged.[8] For example, if a defendant is charged with a crime involving dishonesty, defendant may introduce evidence tending to show defendant's honest character. If defendant is charged with a violent crime, defendant may introduce evidence tending to show defendant's peaceful character.

  • Note that under CEC §1102, a defendant may not only introduce evidence of "a trait of his character" that is relevant to the crime with which he or she is charged, but may also introduce character evidence "of the defendant's character" generally.[9]

Character evidence is also admissible in a criminal trial if offered by a defendant as circumstantial evidence—through reputation or opinion evidence—to show an alleged victim's "pertinent" character trait—for example, to support defendant's claim of self-defense to a charge of homicide.[10]

After a criminal defendant introduces evidence of the victim's character, the prosecution may then introduce its own character evidence to rebut the defendant's character evidence by showing its side's impression of the victim's character, or to attack the character of the defendant through evidence that shows that defendant had the same character trait he or she accused the victim of having.[11]

  • Note that under CEC §1103(a), a defendant may not only introduce evidence of a victim's character or character trait through reputation or opinion evidence, as permitted under FRE 404, but also through evidence of specific acts. [12]

The admissibility of character evidence to allow defendant to prove the character trait of a victim is limited, however, if the lawsuit is for rape or assault with the intent to commit rape. If the reputation or opinion evidence is being offered by the defendant to show the rape victim's past sexual conduct, character evidence is inadmissible. [13] In such sexual misconduct cases, a defendant may offer "evidence of specific instances of a victim’s sexual behavior" only to show that someone other than the defendant was the source of "semen, injury, or other physical evidence," or to show that the victim had consented to sexual behavior with the defendant.

  • Note that under CEC §1103(c)(1), reputation, opinion, and specific acts evidence are all barred if defendant seeks to introduce the evidence to show the sexual character of the victim, but evidence of the victim's sexual conduct with the defendant—i.e. specific acts—may be used by defendant to show that the victim consented to the sexual act.[14]

Character witness[edit]

Commentators have noted that the ability of defendants to call character witnesses can give an advantage to more affluent defendants. Affluent defendants can call as character witnesses celebrities, athletes, and prominent members of the community. In contrast, it would be neither advisable nor beneficial to a defendant to call to the stand a disreputable fellow inmate as a character witness.[citation needed]

Distinguished from habit evidence[edit]

Character evidence must be distinguished from habit evidence, which is generally admissible, and which is evidence submitted for the purpose of proving that an individual acted in a particular way on a particular occasion in question based on that person's tendency to reflexively respond to a particular situation in a particular way.

References[edit]

  1. ^ FRE 404, Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute
  2. ^ Pino v. Koelber, 389 So. 2d 1191, 1193 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1980), citing 1 S. Gard, Jones on Evidence §4:34 (6th ed. 1972) and McCormick on Evidence § 188 (2d ed. 1972): "When a person's character is an essential element in the case, evidence of his character is always admissible because it is in issue. On the other hand, evidence of one's character which is offered only as tending to prove the probability that he acted in a manner consistent with that character on a particular occasion is generally inadmissible."
  3. ^ Wrabek v. Suchomel, 145 Minn. 468, 177 N.W. 764 (1920): "The complaint alleged that, in addition to inflicting injuries upon his person by an assault, defendants intended to injure, and by the publicity of the assault did injure, plaintiff's standing and reputation as a citizen in the community where he lived. The general denial in the answers put plaintiff's reputation as a citizen in issue, and entitled defendants to show, in mitigation of damages, that it was bad."
  4. ^ FRE 404(a)(2)(B)(i)-(ii), Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute
  5. ^ FRE 404(b), Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute
  6. ^ FRE 404(b)(2), Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute
  7. ^ California Evidence Code §1101(b)
  8. ^ U.S. Code Title 28a Committee Notes on Rules—2006 Amendment, Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute: "In criminal cases, the so-called “mercy rule” permits a criminal defendant to introduce evidence of pertinent character traits of the defendant and the victim."
  9. ^ California Evidence Code §1102
  10. ^ FRE 404(a)(2)(B), Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute
  11. ^ FRE 404(a)(2)(B)(i), Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute
  12. ^ California Evidence Code §1103(a)
  13. ^ FRE 412, Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute
  14. ^ California Evidence Code §§1103(c)(1) and (c)(3)

External links[edit]