Is the Prosecution Allowed to Attack My Character in a Criminal Case?

If you have been charged with a crime in Florida, then — in all likelihood — you’re concerned about the progression of your case and what strategies the prosecution might employ so as to find you guilty.  Though many Americans are at least vaguely familiar with the basics of criminal litigation thanks to the popularity of entertainment media on such cases (i.e., police procedurals and shows about State prosecutors), character evidence issues are still relatively unknown to the general populace.

If you’re being prosecuted in Florida, it’s important that you consult with an experienced Florida criminal defense attorney, and that you do so in a timely manner.  Your attorney will not only evaluate your case and advocate on your behalf but may also be able to challenge the introduction of character evidence that could undermine your arguments.

Character Evidence Is Generally Inadmissible

As a general rule, character evidence (i.e., evidence of a person’s character or a trait of their character) is inadmissible at trial.

Note: When discussing evidentiary rules, the use of complicated legal terminology can get out-of-hand, so we’ll be using a few examples to clarify.

If you have been charged with DUI, for example, the prosecution cannot introduce testimony concerning your negative reputation: that you have a tendency to throw loud parties despite the neighbors having requested that you not do so.  Though the prosecution might benefit from the introduction of such character evidence (which implies that you have an irresponsible nature), Florida law prohibits it.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that Florida law does provide for the introduction of character evidence by you — the criminal defendant.  You can proactively introduce positive character evidence that undermines the prosecutorial arguments.  For example, you would be entitled to introduce testimonial evidence of your reputation as a highly responsible community member to show that you are not the sort of person who would operate their vehicle while intoxicated.

As the criminal defendant, introducing character evidence is not entirely unlike “opening Pandora’s Box.”  If you make your character traits — positive or negative — an issue in the case, then the prosecution is entitled to introduce character evidence.  You should carefully consider the benefits before proactively introducing character evidence.

The Williams Rule and Evidence of Other Crimes, Wrongs and Acts

Though Florida’s general rule against admissibility of character evidence also applies for specific, past crimes, wrongs, and acts, the state applies what is known as the Williams Rule (described in section 90.404 of the Florida Evidence Code) to carve out a diverse set of exceptions.

Whether you effectively navigate the Williams Rule can make or break your case.  The rule does not allow the prosecution to introduce evidence of past crimes, wrongs, or acts so as to prove that you have bad character, or that you have a propensity to commit a crime — instead, it allows the prosecution to introduce evidence of past crimes, wrongs, or acts to establish proof of:

  • Motive
  • Opportunity
  • Intent
  • Preparation
  • Plan
  • Knowledge
  • Identity
  • Absence of a mistake

How does this play out in reality?

Suppose that you have been charged with theft of a convenience store.  The prosecution might introduce evidence that you purchased a gun a few days prior to the theft incident, and that you paid a friend to be your getaway driver — they will argue that this evidence is relevant because it establishes proof of preparation, and that you had a plan in place.

In many cases, however, the prosecution will attempt to introduce character evidence that does not quite fit the Williams Rule exceptions.  For example, suppose that you have been charged with the crime of intentional battery.  The prosecution attempts to introduce evidence that you have been involved in a fight in the past with a racial minority in the past, and they argue that it is evidence of motive since it proves that you harbored a racist motive in attacking the current victim: who also happens to be a minority.  The two situations are unrelated, however, and the race of the victim is merely coincidence.

Whether a court will allow certain character evidence to be introduced depends also on its likelihood of causing unfair prejudice.  In the above example, the jury might be unfairly biased against you if the prior evidence of a fight was introduced. Contact a criminal defense attorney today to discuss your options under the law.

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