Criminal Defense

What is Character Evidence?

May 22, 2022 by Ray Chao in Criminal Defense  
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Character Evidence – CA Evidence Code 1101 EC

The California Evidence Code sets out the rules of evidence for state courts. The rules of evidence, and evidentiary matters in general, are complicated, and you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure that only admissible evidence is used at trial.

This means making timely objections and the ability to argue the law persuasively during trial to ensure the prosecutor does not use evidence improperly.

Moreover, an experienced criminal defense attorney will be prepared to admit favorable evidence so that you will win your case.

Broadly, “character evidence” is evidence of:

  • a person’s personality
  • a person’s propensity or tendency to act a certain way
  • a person’s trait
  • a person’s moral character as a “good person” or a “bad person”
  • a person’s moral standing in the community

Notably, character evidence may show how a person acted or behaved in the past, but it doesn’t necessarily show whether a person acted in any particular way at a specific time. In other words, at a criminal trial, a person’s past behavior does not mean the person acted that same way and committed the crime. Therefore, character evidence is generally inadmissible under state law.

Character Evidence, CA Evidence Code 1101

Under California Evidence Code 1101 EC, character evidence is not admissible at trial to show a person acted a certain way on a particular occasion. Specifically, the Evidence Code prohibits the use of evidence of a person’s past bad behavior or acts to show the person acted in a certain way at a particular time. In other words, evidence of bad behavior cannot be used to suggest the defendant is of bad character, and therefore, committed the crime. This would be overly prejudicial and deny the defendant a fair trial.

For example, at a criminal trial for shoplifting, the prosecutor may not use character evidence that the defendant was fired from a job for drinking at work to show the defendant shoplifted. The main reason the character evidence is not admissible is that the evidence of drinking at work may show poor character or a bad trait, but the past conduct does not really help the jury decide whether the person shoplifted. Moreover, the evidence of past conduct may be overly prejudicial which could result in the jury using this character evidence improperly to decide the case.

More specifically, the jury may decide that the defendant has exercised bad character in the past, so the defendant has “bad person,” and that is evidence that they committed the crime of shoplifting. Since this is unfair, EC 1101 prohibits the use of character evidence.

Exceptions to Character Evidence CA Evidence Code 1105 EC

Notably, CA Evidence Code 1101 EC only prohibits character evidence to prove behavior for a specific occasion (i.e., the crime at trial). As a result, character evidence can be used for other reasons including to show:

  • motive
  • opportunity
  • intent
  • preparation or planning a crime
  • knowledge
  • absence of mistake or accident
  • reasonable and good faith belief that the victim of a sex crime consented

There are other exceptions specifically enumerated in the Evidence Code that permits the use of character evidence including the following sections. First, under EC 1102(a), the accused may offer character evidence to show conformity of a character or trait. Commonly, this means the accused will offer evidence of good character evidence. However, under EC 1102(b), if the accused “opens the door” to character evidence by offering good character evidence, the prosecutor may then offer other character evidence in rebuttal.

Second, EC 1103 allows the accused to offer character evidence of the victim, which opens the door for the prosecutor to offer additional character evidence in rebuttal. This includes character evidence of violent behavior by the accused if the accused has offered character evidence of violent behavior by the victim. Notably, the California Rape Shield Law is an exception to the exception under EC 1103 and generally prohibits the accused of introducing evidence of the victim’s past sexual conduct unless it is used as evidence of a reasonable and good faith belief of consent.

Third, EC 1108 permits the prosecutor to admit evidence of prior sex crimes by the accused, regardless of conviction. In other words, character evidence in the form of any charges, arrests or convictions for past sex crimes are admissible unless the evidence is unduly prejudicial. Similarly, EC 1109 permits the prosecutor to admit evidence of prior charges against the accused involving domestic violence, elder abuse or child abuse. However, if the charge was more than 10 years ago, a court must decide whether the evidence should be admissible.

Character Evidence or Habit Evidence?

While character evidence is prohibited under CA Evidence Code 1101, EC, “habit evidence” is admissible under EC 1105. According to the rules of evidence, a distinction is made between “character evidence” and “habit evidence.” As discussed, character evidence prohibits the use of evidence that shows a person’s personal trait. In contrast, habit evidence is evidence of a person’s regular behavior or habits, and may be used to show that the person acted in a consistent manner on a particular occasion.

The reason for the distinction is habit evidence tends to show that a person acts in a consistent way, almost automatically when in a particular situation. Therefore, evidence of this consistent, automatic conduct would be relevant to show the person acted in conformity with the habit or custom on a particular occasion. This is unlike character evidence which tends to show a person’s personality trait or tendency to act a certain way.

Because of this distinction, CA Evidence Code 1105 EC allows the prosecutor to admit habit evidence at trial.

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