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What Is Character Evidence and When Can It Be Used?

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

If you've ever watched any of the countless popular legal television dramas with an attorney, you've likely heard all about how awfully sensationalized the law is portrayed on television. Whether it's misused legal concepts, or the failure to utilize a realistic (likely plot/attention crushing) timelines, people all too frequently confuse concepts from TV law for the real thing.

One of the more commonly misused legal concepts involves character evidence. The idea that a person's history can always be used against them in a court of law is misguided. Unless a person's past actions are relevant to the conduct in question in court, or to their credibility as a witness, generally, evidence of a person's character will only be of limited importance.

What Is Character Evidence?

Character evidence is considered to be testimony, or any other form of evidence, that suggests a person would or wouldn't have acted a certain way based on their reputation, prior conduct, or even past criminal history. Character evidence generally will not be allowed based upon both federal and state laws governing character evidence unless it is highly relevant to court proceedings.

For example, a person's history of speeding tickets is much more relevant if they are charged with vehicular manslaughter, than if they are charged with shoplifting. According to the Federal Rule of Evidence, Section 404, in a criminal case, character evidence may be used in proving a defendant's motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.

Use During Trial and Sentencing

Character evidence usually can't be used at trial to show that a defendant acted in conformity with their character, unless it is highly relevant, as explained above. However, there is a big difference between defendants and witnesses.

Generally, under the Federal Rules of Evidence 607, 608, and 609, character evidence can be used to attack witnesses' credibility (reputation for truthfulness), within limits. State laws generally mirror the federal rules, and sometimes provide additional exceptions that permit the use of character evidence.

After a conviction has been rendered by a judge or jury, on the other hand, a criminal defendant may be free to introduce character evidence during a sentencing phase in order to sway a judge's sentencing decision.

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