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Character Evidence in Trials

Character Evidence in California - Evidence Code 1101 EC

Suppose you are on trial before a jury for a crime in California. In that case, the prosecutor's job is to provide evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime for which you're accused. However, there are rules regarding what may and may not be admitted as evidence.

According to California Evidence Code 1101 EC, the prosecutor generally may not give “character evidence” against you. This means the prosecution isn't allowed to use your past bad actions or crimes as proof that you committed this particular crime. They also can't bring witnesses who express negative opinions regarding your character to prove your guilt.

Character Evidence in California - Evidence Code 1101
Character evidence at a defendant's trial is not normally permitted, but there some exceptions.

For example, let's say someone is on trial for California Penal Code 273.5 corporal injury to a spouse. The prosecutor's cross-examination of the defendant at trial persuaded them to admit that they had been previously convicted of bank fraud.

Their motive is the show the jury the defendant has committed a crime before, making it appear likely they are guilty of this new offense. In other words, to make them look bad before the jury. However, since this is not relevant to the defendant's current case, this type of character evidence should not be admitted at their trial.

While this is a critical protection available to you under California law, called rules of admissibility, there are still numerous exceptions to this rule discussed below and instances in which character evidence may be introduced indirectly to prove other aspects of the case.

Let's explore this concept a bit more thoroughly in this article by our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys.

Evidence Code 1101 Explained

According to California Evidence Code 1101 EC, with certain specific exceptions:

  • “evidence of someone's character or a trait of their character, whether in the form of an opinion, evidence of reputation, or evidence of specific instances of their conduct, is inadmissible when offered to prove their conduct on a specified occasion.”

This protection is basically to prevent the prosecution from using your past to besmirch your character because it may unfairly bias the jury against you. At best, character evidence is only an indicator that you could have committed the crime, but it doesn't serve as hard evidence that you did so.

“Could have committed” is not beyond a reasonable doubt, so it doesn't stand up in court—at least, in theory. The general rule under EC 1101 is that the prosecution and defense in criminal trials in California can't present “character evidence” to show someone acted in accordance with their character on a particular occasion.

Character evidence includes evidence about somebody's personality or propensities, the moral nature of their character, and moral status in the community.

The primary reason for this rule against character evidence is that it can potentially confuse a jury. For example, it could distract the jury from the central issue of what exactly occurred in the current criminal allegations.

Their duty is to determine whether a defendant committed the crime in question. If evidence of bad character was allowed, it could unfairly persuade them to punish the defendant based on this alone, regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent.

See related: Hearsay Rule

Habit Evidence versus Character Evidence

One issue that makes matters confusing regarding character evidence is that it shouldn't be confused with “habit evidence,” which California law does permit as defined under Evidence Code 1105.

Habit Evidence in a California Trial
Habit evidence is allowed meaning evidence about how somebody behaved in a particular situation.

Habit evidence is evidence about how someone usually behaves in a particular situation. In a criminal case, the prosecution and defense can present habit evidence to show that someone acted, or probably acted, according to their habits on a specific occasion.

The difference here is that the prosecution can't invoke your past behaviors to reference your character (i.e., the type of person who would commit this crime). Still, they can point to your habits to suggest that committing the crime falls within the scope of your standard behavior: one approach attempts to identify your character traits and the other deals strictly with your behaviors.

EXAMPLE: You're on trial for felony assault after arguing with the victim. The prosecutor can't bring a witness to testify that you're a “violent person” or that you hit them in the past because that constitutes “character evidence.”

However, suppose the prosecution brings multiple witnesses who have seen you assault numerous people while having the same argument. In that case, they establish a habitual behavior pattern that may be admissible.

Exceptions to EC 1101: When Is Character Evidence Acceptable in Court?

There are numerous exceptions to the rule prohibiting character evidence—particularly when the prosecution can demonstrate that the character trait is relevant to the case. Some of the most common exceptions are listed below.

Proving other facts in the case besides your guilt 

Specifically, prosecutors may introduce character evidence to show that you:

  • Had the motive to commit the crime;
  • Had the opportunity to commit the crime; or
  • Had a plan in place to commit the crime;
  • Had knowledge of a fact.

For example, if you're accused of murder, the prosecution might introduce evidence that you had trafficked large quantities of drugs and that the victim was aware of your activities. This would be admissible as it establishes that you had a motive for killing the person without directly attacking your character.

When offered first by the defendant – Evidence Code 1102 EC

Under EC 1102, criminal defendants can present character evidence to prove that they behaved in a certain way. If your attorney brings witnesses to attest to the quality of your character, the prosecution is then allowed to bring witnesses to refute those claims.

Evidence Code 1103 EC allows defendant's to offer evidence of the alleged victim's character.

Likewise, if your attorney brings evidence that questions the victim's character, the prosecution may introduce character evidence against you to counter those claims.

Evidence of the victim's character – Evidence Code 1103 EC

Further, under EC 1103, a criminal defendant is allowed to offer evidence about the alleged victim's character. Again, if the defendant decides to do so, the prosecution can present their character evidence about the victim to challenge the defendant's argument.

Attacking the credibility of a witness

The prosecution can bring character evidence against a witness to demonstrate that witness is unreliable or untrustworthy. According to the Rules of Evidence Code 780 EC, character evidence can be used to argue that since the witness lied before, they could be lying now.

In other words, it's an attempt to show they are dishonest character. Both the prosecution and defense can impeach the character of a witness by offering evidence of their past felony convictions, but there are exceptions.

In trials regarding sex crimes – Evidence Code 1108

If you're charged with a sex crime, California law permits prosecutors to introduce character evidence of previous sex crimes.

According to Evidence Code 1108 EC, in a California sex crimes case, the prosecutor is permitted to present evidence the defendant has committed other sex crimes in the past. It doesn't matter if they were convicted. In other words, the prosecutor can introduce evidence that was only an arrest in a sex case, even if the charge was later dismissed or never filed.

California rape shield law

California's rape shield law is an important exception. This law states that a defendant in a criminal case charged with specific sexual-related crimes, such as rape and forcible sexual penetration with a foreign object, can't present evidence about the alleged victim's past.

In other words, defendants aren't allowed to present evidence about the victim's prior sexual activity to prove they gave sexual consent. However, proof of the victim's sexual reputation can establish that the defendant believed the victim permitted sexual activity.

In trials regarding domestic violence-related crimes - Evidence Code 1109 EC

Suppose you're charged with any domestic violence crimes. In that case, California law allows prosecutors to introduce character evidence of prior instances of abuse, provided they occurred less than ten years before the crime for which you're on trial, including:

According to Evidence Code 1109 EC, a prosecutor can introduce evidence that you committed a similar crime in the past, even though it would not usually be inadmissible character evidence. However, the prosecutor cannot introduce character evidence of past domestic abuse crimes occurring more than ten years before the current crime unless approved by the judge. See related: Spousal Privilege.

Are there Other Similar Evidentiary Rules?

Yes. The hearsay rule in California says that “hearsay evidence” is not admissible in a criminal trial. Hearsay is evidence of a statement made other than by a witness while testifying and is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated.

Further, there are other evidentiary rules to protect certain people from having to testify against certain defendants, such as married couples having the privilege not to testify against their spouses.

If any rule of evidence was violated during your criminal trial, it's the responsibility of your criminal attorney to object to the violation.  If the judge decides to overrule the objection, you could potentially appeal your conviction.

Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County, and we serve people across Southern California. You can reach us for an initial case consultation by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

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