Federal Rule 404 Provides a General Rule Against Character Evidence For Purposes of Proving that Someone Acted According to his Personality or Character Traits

F.R.E. 404 (a) (1) provides that:

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

As discussed in the video below:

  • People should be put on trial for what they allegedly did – – not who they are.
  • Although a person might have a characteristic or personality trait that makes him more or less likely to have committed a certain act, evidence of that characteristic or personality trait is admissible to prove that he committed that act.

Watch the video below and try the quiz at the 2:26 mark.

Excluding Evidence of  a Person’s Disposition

We all know that people have (or are believed to have) certain characteristics.  For example, one person might have a history of acting violently.  Another person might have a reputation for honesty.  And someone else could have a  history of dishonesty or theft.

On a day-to-day basis, we take into account this evidence of a person’s character. If we talk with someone who was always honest with us in the past, we are more likely to believe what they tell us in the future. 

Likewise, let’s say you have an acquaintance who stole in the past.  If things go missing from your house, you might be more willing to accuse that acquaintance of stealing from you because of his past conduct. 

People tend to act consistent with their disposition so we consider these characteristics when judging their actions.

But Rule 404 makes evidence of a characteristic inadmissible to prove that someone acted according to his disposition.

Let’s say David is accused of stealing a bicycle.  The prosecutor will need evidence that the person actually stole the bike.  Evidence that a David is the “type of person” who would commit such a crime, should be inadmissible pursuant to Rule 404. 

For example, although David might have a reputation for dishonesty, that evidence should not be admissible to prove that he stole this particular bicycle.  


There are Circumstances where Character Evidence is Admissible

Although not discussed in detail here, evidence of a person’s reputation or past conduct can be admitted into evidence under certain circumstances. 

For example, let’s say David is on trial for punching Victor on January 1.  David claims that he punched Victor in self-defense.  Among other things, David claims that he believed he was in danger given Victor’s reputation for violence. 

It is possible that David will be allowed to admit into evidence proof of Victor’s violent reputation, for purposes of proving that David honestly believed Victor was going to harm him.  Evidence of Victor’s character trait is not being used to prove that Victor was actually violent on January 1.  Instead, the evidence is being used to help prove David’s claim that he believed he was in danger.


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