Character Evidence

By Daisy Rogozinsky
/
July 11, 2022

Character evidence is one of the types of evidence that may be brought up in a legal case. In this article, we’ll define the term “character evidence” and explain how it is governed in criminal law.

Key Takeaways

  • Character evidence is evidence about a person’s personality, morals, and reputation
  • Mentions of a person’s past acts or crimes are considered character evidence
  • Character evidence is inadmissible under common law and federal law except for certain exceptions, namely if it is brought up by the defense
  • Character evidence is not usually allowed because it is considered to sway jurors to make conclusions based on an individual’s past or character rather than what the evidence of the case shows probably happened

What Is Character Evidence?

Character evidence is a type of evidence regarding a person’s personality, tendencies, ethics, and morals. Types of character evidence include:

  • Mention of past bad actions of the defendant
  • Mention of past crimes committed by the defendant
  • Witnesses expressing negative opinions about the defendant’s character

For example, let’s say a defendant is on trial having been accused of a carjacking. If the prosecution were to cross-examine the defendant and get them to admit that they have previously been convicted of grand theft auto, this is considered character evidence. It may seem relevant to the case, but this type of evidence would not be admissible in the criminal court. 

Character Evidence in Criminal Law

Under common law, character evidence is inadmissible in criminal cases unless the defendant is the first one to raise the issue. The prosecution does not have the right to bring up the defendant’s character, reputation, or disposition on their own. This is not because character evidence is thought to be irrelevant, but because the jury may put too much weight on it such that they are unable to make a fair ruling. Essentially, if a prosecution can show that a defendant has a bad reputation and a dark past, it may cause the jury to find him or her guilty even if they are innocent of the crime at hand. 

 

The federal rules about character evidence largely follow the common law rule. In federal court, Federal Rule of Evidence 404 prohibits the admission of character evidence except for under the following circumstances:

  • A criminal defendant offers evidence of his pertinent trait
  • A defendant offers evidence of an alleged victim’s pertinent trait
  • The prosecution offers evidence of the alleged victim’s trait of peacefulness to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor 

The justification for this rule is that character evidence is thought to have the potential to be very prejudicial while only having slight probative value. It is believed to be able to distract from the main question of what actually happened and subtly permit “good men” to be rewarded and “bad men” to be punished based on their character rather than what the evidence of the case shows actually happened.

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