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Character Evidence

  • Mar 18 2024

During trial, attorneys are required to practice and follow the rules of evidence while presenting their case to regulate what the jury can use to reach its verdict. The rules of evidence were established to ensure fair administration of every proceeding, reduce expenses and delays, and safeguard the jury from reaching a verdict due to an unrelated or misleading factor. In the United States, federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Evidence and state courts normally follow their own state rules. State rules of evidence often stem from the federal rules. Given the variations in state rules of evidence across jurisdictions, the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) will be used to explain the concept of impeachment evidence.   

Character evidence refers to evidence a car accident lawyer may use to highlight a person’s character, traits, inclinations, or moral standing. Usually, character evidence is inadmissible because it tends to distract the jury from the main issues and questions of the case. However, there are exceptions to this general rule. Federal Rules of Evidence 404, 405, and 406 govern the rules of character evidence. Below are the most common rules invoked involving character evidence.

Federal Rule of Evidence 404 governs the admission of character evidence and other crimes, wrongs, or acts. 

Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a) prohibits evidence of a person’s character or character trait to prove that on a particular occasion that person acted in accordance with that character or character trait. 

Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2) also known as the mercy rule, provides an exception for the admission of character evidence ONLY for a defendant in a criminal case. Witnesses can elicit evidence of a pertinent character trait, but not specific traits. These traits can only take the form of opinion or reputation. If the judge allows admission of character evidence, the opposing side may offer specific evidence to rebut the claim that a witness has a certain character trait on cross examination. What is pertinent depends on the nature of the crime the criminal defendant is on trial for. For example, the trait of peacefulness is admissible if pertinent to the crime of murder, but truthfulness is not pertinent to murder.

Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) prohibits evidence of any crime, wrong, or specific act, good or bad, to prove a person’s character to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with that crime, wrong, or specific act. However, this evidence is admissible for another purpose such as showing motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident. If the evidence is deemed admissible, the prosecution in a criminal case must provide reasonable notice of any such evidence prior to trial so the defendant has an opportunity to meet it. The prosecution must articulate in the notice the permitted purpose for which they intend to offer the evidence and must do so in writing before trial or in any form during trial if there is good cause. 

Federal Rule of Evidence 405 governs the methods of how an attorney can prove character. 

Federal Rule of Evidence 405(a) provides that in any case, criminal or civil, evidence of a person’s character or character trait may be presented either through testimony regarding their reputation, or through testimony in the form of an opinion. During cross examination of a character witness, the court may permit questions about pertinent specific instances of the person’s conduct. 

Federal Rule of Evidence 405(b) provides an exception to the character evidence rule when a person’s character or character trait is an essential element of a charge, claim or defense. If character is an element of the claim or defense, an attorney can use character evidence. Examples of cases where character is an element of a claim or defense are defamation cases, child custody cases, and negligent entrustment cases.

Federal Rule of Evidence 406 allows evidence of a person’s habit or an organization’s routine practice to prove that on a particular occasion, the person or organization acted in accordance with the habit or routine practice. The court may admit this evidence whether or not it is corroborated or whether there was an eyewitness. To distinguish habit from character evidence, the court looks to the specificity, distinctiveness, and regularity of the conduct. The more specific, distinctive, and/or regular the conduct is, the more likely its habit evidence and not character evidence. 

If you are facing a trial and need help with character witnesses, contact a lawyer near you for help.

Thanks to Eglet Adams for their insight on character evidence.

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