Character evidence is evidence on an individual’s personality traits, propensities, or moral standing.
Generally, under the common law character evidence is inadmissible in criminal cases unless the defendant raises the issue first. The U.S. Supreme Court in Michelson v. United States summarized the common law rule as “simply clos[ing] the whole matter of character, disposition and reputation to the prosecution’s case-in-chief.” The rationale is not because the evidence is irrelevant, but because “it is said to weigh too much with the jury and to so over-persuade them as to prejudge one with a bad general record and deny him a fair opportunity to defend against a particular charge.”
Currently, in federal court, Federal Rule of Evidence 404 prohibits the admission of character evidence unless a criminal defendant offers evidence of his pertinent trait, a defendant offers evidence of an alleged victim’s pertinent trait, or the prosecution offers evidence of the alleged victim’s trait of peacefulness to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor. That is, the Federal Rules of Evidence largely follow the common law rule. The Committee Notes to Rule 404 justify the rule, stating: “Character evidence is of slight probative value and may be very prejudicial. It tends to distract the trier of fact from the main question of what actually happened on the particular occasion. It subtly permits the trier of fact to reward the good man to punish the bad man because of their respective characters despite what the evidence in the case shows actually happened.”
[Last updated in November of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]