What is “Character Evidence” in a Utah Criminal Case?

The term “evidence” describes more than just bullet casings and blood stains.  In addition to the physical evidence most people picture, criminal cases can also involve a more abstract type of evidence called character evidence.  As the term suggests, character evidence involves the defendant’s personal traits and life circumstances as they pertain to the likelihood that he or she could have committed the crime.  Character evidence can play a vital role in criminal cases, but there are certain situations where it is considered inadmissible.  In this article, Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson will explain the rules and regulations governing the use of character evidence — and how they could potentially impact your case if you’ve been charged with a crime in Utah.

Can the Victim or Defendant’s Personality Traits Impact a Criminal Case?

It goes without saying that criminal cases can be contentious.  It also goes without saying that the objective of a trial is the determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence, toward which end the defense attorney and the prosecutor will both attempt to compile as much relevant admissible evidence as possible.

This brings up an important question: is a defendant’s very nature considered relevant and admissible?  Can the defendant’s life circumstances, past acts and experiences, and personal habits be brought up by the prosecutor, or impact the jury’s consideration of the current allegations?

As you might imagine, criminal proceedings can leave ample room for character assassination, which could potentially have the disastrous effect of unfairly biasing the jury against the defendant. This is particularly true of cases involving sex offenses, due to the strong emotions such charges evoke.  Jurors are given strict instructions regarding neutrality, but at the end of the day, are still human beings susceptible to personal opinions and beliefs.

Thus, in order to help prevent irrelevant remarks and suggestions about the defendant’s character from shading the criminal proceedings, the Utah judiciary enforces specific rules about how and when character evidence may (and may not) be brought up and considered.

Rule 404(a)(1), for example, plainly states the following:

Evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted in conformity with the character or trait.

This means, for example, that just because the defendant is known to be short-tempered, doesn’t mean that he or she should in any way be presumed guilty of committing assault.

However, there are a few exceptions to this general principle.  There are three potential exceptions, provided by Rule 404(2):

  • The defendant him- or herself has a right to offer evidence of their own character traits, though such evidence can be rebutted by the prosecutor.
  • The defendant can offer evidence about a victim’s character traits (which again, the prosecutor may challenge).
  • If (1) the charges involve an alleged homicide, and (2) the defense attorney claims the victim provoked the defendant into attacking, then the prosecutor can rebut by “offer[ing] evidence of the alleged victim’s trait of peacefulness.”

criminal defense

Can Prior Convictions Impact the Current Charges?

Moving on through these guidelines, Rule 404(b)(1) supplies a second prohibition:

Evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in conformity with the character.

In other words, just because the defendant did something illegal in the past, that does not, and should not be considered to, indicate guilt with regard to the current charges.

However, again there are exceptions, this time supplied by Rule 404(b)(2).  Specifically, evidence of a previous “crime, wrong, or other act” can be considered when attempting to prove any of the following points:

  • Absence of Mistake
  • Identity
  • Intent
  • Knowledge
  • Lack of Accident
  • Motive
  • Opportunity
  • Plan
  • Preparation

From a practical standpoint, this means that the defendant’s previous crimes can have significant bearing on how the current charges are evaluated.  The many exceptions supplied by Rule 404(b)(2) can, unfortunately, weaken the protection afforded by Rule 404(b)(1).

On a related note, evidence of past crimes plays a special role in cases specifically involving allegations of child molestation.  (Note that while Rule 404 refers to “child molestation,” there is no statute in Utah for a crime called “child molestation.”  These cases can involve charges such as sexual abuse of a child, rape of a child, and many other sex offense allegations involving children aged 13 or younger.)  In these cases, “the court may admit evidence that the defendant committed any other acts of child molestation to prove a propensity to commit the crime charged.”

Finally, in accordance with Rule 405, prosecutors may use two different methods of trying to prove the defendant’s character:

  • By Reputation or Opinion — When admissible, character evidence must be proven with “testimony about the person’s reputation” (which can then lead to a court inquiry).
  • By Specific Instances of Conduct — If the defendant has a trait which impacts the charges — or the defense strategy being used —  it must be proven “by relevant specific instances of the person’s conduct.”

If you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor or felony in Utah, it’s extremely important to make sure your legal rights are being protected by an experienced and compassionate defense lawyer. To set up a free and completely confidential legal consultation, call sex crimes lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 today.