Old Chief v. United States (95-6556), 519 U.S. 172 (1997)
[ O'Connor ]
[ Souter ]
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No. 95-6556


on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

[January 7, 1997]

Justice O'Connor , with whom The Chief Justice,

Rule 403 provides that a district court may exclude relevant evidence if, among other things, "its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice." Certainly, Rule 403 does not permit the court to exclude the Government's evidence simply because it may hurt the defendant. As a threshold matter, evidence is excludable only if it is "unfairly"

prejudicial, in that it has "an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis." Advisory Committee's Note on Fed. Rule Evid. 403, 28 U. S. C. App., p. 860; see, e.g., United States v. Munoz, 36 F. 3d 1229, 1233 (CA1 1994) ("The damage done to the defense is not a basis for exclusion; the question under Rule 403 is `one of "unfair" prejudice--not of prejudice alone' ") (citations omitted), cert. denied sub nom. Martinez v. United States, 513 U. S. ___ (1995); Dollar v. Long Mfg., N. C., Inc., 561 F. 2d 613, 618 (CA5 1977) (" `[U]nfair prejudice' as used in Rule 403 is not to be equated with testimony simply adverse to the opposing party. Virtually all evidence is prejudicial or it isn't material. The prejudice must be `unfair' "), cert. denied, 435 U.S. 996 (1978). The evidence tendered by the Government in this case--the order reflecting petitioner's prior conviction and sentence for assault resulting in serious bodily injury, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1153 and 18 U.S.C. § 113(f) (1988 ed.)--directly proved a necessary element of the §922(g)(1) offense, that is, that petitioner had committed a crime covered by §921(a)(20). Perhaps petitioner's case was damaged when the jury discovered that he previously had committed a felony and heard the name of his crime. But I cannot agree with the Court that it was unfairly prejudicial for the Government to establish an essential element of its case against petitioner with direct proof of his prior conviction.

The structure of §922(g)(1) itself shows that Congress envisioned jurors' learning the name and basic nature of the defendant's prior offense. Congress enacted §922(g)(1) to prohibit the possession of a firearm by any person convicted of "a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year." Section 922(g)(1) does not merely prohibit the possession of firearms by "felons," nor does it apply to all prior felony convictions. Rather, the statute excludes from §922(g)(1)'s coverage certain business crimes and state misdemeanors punishable by imprisonment of two years or less. §921(a)(20). Within the meaning of §922(g)(1), then, "a crime" is not an abstract or metaphysical concept. Rather, the Government must prove that the defendant committed a particular crime. In short, under §922(g)(1), a defendant's prior felony conviction connotes not only that he is a prior felon, but also that he has engaged in specific past criminal conduct.

Even more fundamentally, in our system of justice, a person is not simply convicted of "a crime" or "a felony." Rather, he is found guilty of a specified offense, almost always because he violated a specific statutory prohibition. For example, in the words of the order that the Government offered to prove petitioner's prior conviction in this case, petitioner "did knowingly and unlawfully assault Rory Dean Fenner, said assault resulting in serious bodily injury, in violation of Title 18 U.S.C. §§ 1153 and 113(f)." App. 18. That a variety of crimes would have satisfied the prior conviction element of the §922(g)(1) offense does not detract from the fact that petitioner committed a specific offense. The name and basic nature of petitioner's crime are inseparable from the fact of his earlier conviction and were therefore admissible to prove petitioner's guilt.

The principle is illustrated by the evidence that was admitted at petitioner's trial to prove the other element of the §922(g)(1) offense--possession of a "firearm." The Government submitted evidence showing that petitioner possessed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. Although petitioner's possession of any number of weapons would have satisfied the requirements of §922(g)(1), obviously the Government was entitled to prove with specific evidence that petitioner possessed the weapon he did. In the same vein, consider a murder case. Surely the Government can submit proof establishing the victim's identity, even though, strictly speaking, the jury has no "need" to know the victim's name, and even though thevictim might be a particularly well loved public figure. The same logic should govern proof of the prior conviction element of the §922(g)(1) offense. That is, the Government ought to be able to prove, with specific evidence, that petitioner committed a crime that came within §922(g)(1)'s coverage.

The Court never explains precisely why it constitutes "unfair" prejudice for the Government to directly prove an essential element of the §922(g)(1) offense with evidence that reveals the name or basic nature of the defendant's prior conviction. It simply notes that such evidence may lead a jury to conclude that the defendant has a propensity to commit crime, thereby raising the odds that the jury would find that he committed the crime with which he is currently charged. With a nod to the part of Rule 404(b) that says "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith," the Court writes:

"There is, accordingly, no question that propensity is an `improper basis' for conviction and that evidence of a prior conviction is subject to analysis for probative value and for prejudicial risk of misuse as propensity evidence." Ante, at 9.

A few pages later, it leaps to the conclusion that there can be "no question that evidence of the name or nature of the prior offense carries a risk of unfair prejudice to the defendant." Ante, at 13.

Yes, to be sure, Rule 404(b) provides that "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith." But Rule 404(b) does not end there. It expressly contemplates the admission of evidence of prior crimes for other purposes, "such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident." The list is plainly not exhaustive, and where, as here, a prior conviction is an element of the charged offense, neither Rule 404(b) nor Rule 403 can bar its admission. The reason is simple: In a prosecution brought under §922(g)(1), the Government does not submit evidence of a past crime to prove the defendant's bad character or to "show action in conformity therewith." It tenders the evidence as direct proof of a necessary element of the offense with which it has charged the defendant. To say, as the Court does, that it "unfairly" prejudices the defendant for the Government to establish its §922(g)(1) case with evidence showing that, in fact, the defendant did commit a prior offense misreads the Rules of Evidence and defies common sense.

Any incremental harm resulting from proving the name or basic nature of the prior felony can be properly mitigated by limiting jury instructions. Federal Rule of Evidence 105 provides that when evidence is admissible for one purpose, but not another, "the court, upon request, shall restrict the evidence to its proper scope and instruct the jury accordingly." Indeed, on petitioner's own motion in this case, the District Court instructed the jury that it was not to " `consider a prior conviction as evidence of guilt of the crime for which the defendant is now on trial.' " Brief for United States 32. The jury is presumed to have followed this cautionary instruction, see Shannon v. United States, 512 U.S. 573, ___ (1994), and the instruction offset whatever prejudice might have arisen from the introduction of petitioner's prior conviction.

The Court also holds that, if a defendant charged with violating §922(g)(1) concedes his prior felony conviction, a district court abuses its discretion if it admits evidence of the defendant's prior crime that raises the risk of a verdict "tainted by improper considerations." See ante,at 1. Left unexplained is what, exactly, it was about the order introduced by the Government at trial that might cause a jury to decide the case improperly. The order offered into evidence (which the Court nowhere in its opinion sets out) stated, in relevant part:

"And the defendant having been convicted on his plea of guilty of the offense charged in Count II of the indictment in the above entitled cause, to wit: That on or about the 18th day of December 1988, at Browning, in the State and District of Montana, and on and within the exterior boundaries of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, being Indian country, JOHNNY LYNN OLD CHIEF, an Indian person, did knowingly and unlawfully assault Rory Dean Fenner, said assault resulting in serious bodily injury, in violation of Title 18 U.S.C. §§ 1153 and 113(f)." App. 18.

The order went on to say that petitioner was sentenced for a term of 60 months' imprisonment, to be followed by two years of supervised release.

Why, precisely, does the Court think that this item of evidence raises the risk of a verdict "tainted by improper considerations"? Is it because the jury might learn that petitioner assaulted someone and caused serious bodily injury? If this is what the Court means, would evidence that petitioner had committed some other felony be admissible, and if so, what sort of crime might that be? Or does the Court object to the order because it gave a few specifics about the assault, such as the date, the location, and the victim's name? Or perhaps the Court finds that introducing the order risks a verdict "tainted by improper considerations" simply because the §922(g)(1) charge was joined with counts charging petitioner with using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), and with committing an assault with a dangerous weapon, inviolation of 18 U.S.C. § 1153 and 18 U.S.C. § 113(c) (1988 ed.)? Under the Court's nebulous standard for admission of prior felony evidence in a §922(g)(1) prosecution, these are open questions.

More troubling still is the Court's retreat from the fundamental principle that in a criminal prosecution the Government may prove its case as it sees fit. The Court reasons that, in general, a defendant may not stipulate away an element of a charged offense because, in the usual case, "the prosecution with its burden of persuasion needs evidentiary depth to tell a continuous story." Ante, at 18. The rule has, however, "virtually no application when the point at issue is a defendant's legal status, dependent on some judgment rendered wholly independently of the concrete events of later criminal behavior charged against him." Ibid. Thus, concludes the Court, there is no real difference between the "evidentiary significance" of a defendant's concession and that of the Government's proof of the prior felony with the order of conviction. Ante, at 19. Since the Government's method of proof was more prejudicial than petitioner's admission, it follows that the District Court should not have admitted the order reflecting his conviction when petitioner had conceded that element of the offense. Ibid.

On its own terms, the argument does not hold to gether. A jury is as likely to be puzzled by the "missing chapter" resulting from a defendant's stipulation to his prior felony conviction as it would be by the defendant's conceding any other element of the crime. The jury may wonder why it has not been told the name of the crime, or it may question why the defendant's firearm possession was illegal, given the tradition of lawful gun ownership in this country, see Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 610-612 (1994). " `Doubt as to the criminality of [the defendant's] conduct may influence the jury when it considers the possession element.' " United States v. Barker, 1 F. 3d 957, 960 (1993) (quoting United States v. Collamore, 868 F. 2d 24, 28 (CA1 1989)), modified, 20 F. 3d 365 (CA9 1994).

Second, the Court misapprehends why "it has never been seriously suggested that [a defendant] can . . . compel the Government to try the case by stipulation." Singer v. United States, 380 U.S. 24, 35 (1965). It may well be that the prosecution needs "evidentiary depth to tell a continuous story" in order to prove its case in a way a jury will accept. Ante, at 18. But that is by no means the only or the most important reason that a defendant may not oblige the Government to accept his concession to an element of the charged offense. The Constitution requires a criminal conviction to rest upon a jury determination that the defendant is guilty of every element of the crime of which he is charged beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Gaudin, 515 U. S. ___, ___ (1995) (citing Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 277 (1993)); see also County Court of Ulster Cty. v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140, 156 (1979) ("[I]n criminal cases, the ultimate test of any device's constitutional validity in a given case remains constant: the device must not undermine the factfinder's responsibility at trial, based on evidence adduced by the State, to find the ultimate facts beyond a reasonable doubt"). "A simple plea of not guilty, Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 11, puts the prosecution to its proof as to all elements of the crime charged . . . ." Mathews v. United States, 485 U.S. 58, 64-65 (1988). Further, a defendant's tactical decision not to contest an essential element of the crime does not remove the prosecution's burden to prove that element. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 69 (1991). At trial, a defendant may thus choose to contest the Government's proof on every element; or he may concede some elements and contest others; or he may do nothing at all. Whatever his choice, the Government still carries the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on eachelement.

It follows from these principles that a defendant's stipulation to an element of an offense does not remove that element from the jury's consideration. The usual instruction regarding stipulations in a criminal case reflects as much: "When the attorneys on both sides stipulate or agree as to the existence of a fact, you may accept the stipulation as evidence and regard that fact as proved. You are not required to do so, however, since you are the sole judge of the facts." 1 E. Devitt, C. Blackmar, M. Wolff, & K. O'Malley, Federal Jury Practice and Instructions §12.03, p. 333 (4th ed. 1992). Obviously, we are not dealing with a stipulation here. A stipulation is an agreement, and no agreement was reached between petitioner and the Government in this case. Does the Court think a different rule applies when the defendant attempts to stipulate, over the Government's objection, to an element of the charged offense? If so, that runs counter to the Constitution: The Government must prove every element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt, In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 361 (1970), and the defendant's strategic decision to "agree" that the Government need not prove an element cannot relieve the Government of its burden, see Estelle, supra, at 69-70. Because the Government bears the burden of proof on every element of a charged offense, it must be accorded substantial leeway to submit evidence of its choosing to prove its case.

Also overlooked by the Court is the fact that, in "conceding" that he has a prior felony conviction, a defendant may be trying to take the issue from the jury altogether by effectively entering a partial plea of guilty, something we have never before endorsed. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 23(a) does not permit a defendant to waive a jury trial unless the Government consents, and we have upheld the provision as constitutional. Singer, supra, at 37. "The Constitution recognizes an adversary system as the proper method of determining guilt, and the Government, as a litigant, has a legitimate interest in seeing that cases in which it believes a conviction is warranted are tried before the tribunal which the Constitution regards as most likely to produce a fair result." 380 U. S., at 36. A defendant who concedes the prior conviction element of the §922(g)(1) offense may be effectively trying to waive his right to a jury trial on that element. Unless the Government agrees to this waiver, it runs afoul of Rule 23(a) and Singer.

The Court manufactures a new rule that, in a §922(g)(1) case, a defendant can force the Government to accept his admission to the prior felony conviction element of the offense, thereby precluding the Government from offering evidence to directly prove a necessary element of its case. I cannot agree that it "unfairly" prejudices a defendant for the Government to prove his prior conviction with evidence that reveals the name or basic nature of his past crime. Like it or not, Congress chose to make a defendant's prior criminal conviction one of the two elements of the §922(g)(1) offense. Moreover, crimes have names; a defendant is not convicted of some indeterminate, unspecified "crime." Nor do I think that Federal Rule of Evidence 403 can be read to obviate the well accepted principle, grounded in both the Constitution and in our precedent, that the Government may not be forced to accept a defendant's concession to an element of a charged offense as proof of that element. I respectfully dissent.