Due to the potential for misuse, evidence of a person’s character is admissible in very limited circumstances. A jury that hears evidence of a person’s tendency toward violence, for instance, would probably find it difficult to disregard this information in determining whether the person committed a violent crime. As a result, the rules defining the proper use of character evidence have been crafted over years of litigation as to the best way to ensure that relevant information is heard, but that evidence likely to unfairly influence the jury is excluded.
Under the current rules, character evidence may not be admitted to show that a person acted in accordance with his or her character, except in certain circumstances. Minnesota Rule of Evidence 404. Those circumstances are as follows: (1) an accused in a criminal proceeding may introduce evidence of his or her own character (which also opens the door for the prosecution to counter with its own evidence of the accused’s character); (2) evidence of a victim’s character may be introduced when the evidence is pertinent to the case and offered first by the accused (or by the prosecution in a homicide case to counter other evidence suggesting that the victim was the first aggressor); and (3) evidence of a witness’ dishonest character may be used to impeach the witness, and may be countered with evidence of that person’s character for truthfulness. Id.; see also Minnesota Rule of Evidence 608.
There are additional rules that determine how a person’s character may be shown, if it is admissible in a proceeding. Generally, a person’s character can be introduced through testimony about the person’s reputation or opinions regarding the person’s character. Minnesota Rule of Evidence 405. Specific instances of conduct (other than crimes admissible for impeachment purposes) are only admissible to show character if character is an element of the case at hand, or if the specific conduct is offered on cross examination in rebuttal to reputation or opinion testimony already admitted. Id. For example, if Witness gives testimony that Defendant is a peaceful person, during cross examination the prosecution may ask Witness if he or she knew about Defendant’s involvement in a bar fight.
Notably, evidence of a person’s habits are considered separately from character evidence, and can be relevant and admissible to prove that the person acted in conformity with an established habit. Habit is different from character in that habit is a person’s “regular response to a repeated specific situation.” Minnesota Rule of Evidence 406 Advisory Committee Comment-1989 (quoting McCormick on Evidence, § 195 (2d ed.))
The rules regarding the admissibility of character evidence are quite detailed and particular, and must be reviewed thoroughly if the admission of character evidence will be an important issue in an upcoming trial.