MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.
In 1947 petitioner Michelson was convicted of bribing a federal revenue agent.
On direct examination of defendant, his own counsel brought out that, in 1927, he had been convicted of a misdemeanor having to do with trading in counterfeit watch dials. On cross-examination it appeared that in 1930, in executing an application for a license to deal in second-hand jewelry, he answered "No" to the question whether he had theretofore been arrested or summoned for any offense.
Defendant called five witnesses to prove that he enjoyed a good reputation. Two of them testified that their acquaintance with him extended over a period of about thirty years and the others said they had known him at least half that long. A typical examination in chief was as follows:
These are representative of answers by three witnesses; two others replied, in substance, that they never had heard anything against Michelson.
On cross-examination, four of the witnesses were asked, in substance, this question: "Did you ever hear that Mr. Michelson on March 4, 1927, was convicted of a violation of the trademark law in New York City in regard to watches?" This referred to the twenty-year-old conviction about which defendant himself had testified on direct examination. Two of them had heard of it and two had not.
To four of these witnesses the prosecution also addressed the question the allowance of which, over defendant's objection, is claimed to be reversible error:
None of the witnesses appears to have heard of this.
The trial court asked counsel for the prosecution, out of presence of the jury, "Is it a fact according to the best information in your possession, that Michelson was arrested for receiving stolen goods?" Counsel replied that it was, and to support his good faith exhibited a paper record which defendant's counsel did not challenge.
The judge also on three occasions warned the jury, in terms that are not criticized, of the limited purpose for which this evidence was received.
Courts that follow the common-law tradition almost unanimously have come to disallow resort by the prosecution to any kind of evidence of a defendant's evil character to establish a probability of his guilt.
But this line of inquiry firmly denied to the State is opened to the defendant because character is relevant in resolving probabilities of guilt.
While courts have recognized logical grounds for criticism of this type of opinion-based-on-hearsay testimony,
Another paradox in this branch of the law of evidence is that the delicate and responsible task of compacting reputation hearsay into the "brief phrase of a verdict" is one of the few instances in which conclusions are accepted from a witness on a subject in which he is not an expert. However, the witness must qualify to give an opinion by showing such acquaintance with the defendant, the community in which he has lived and the circles in which he has moved, as to speak with authority of the terms in which generally he is regarded. To require affirmative knowledge of the reputation may seem inconsistent with the latitude given to the witness to testify when all he can say of the reputation is that he has "heard nothing against defendant." This is permitted upon assumption that, if no ill is reported of one, his reputation must be good.
Thus the law extends helpful but illogical options to a defendant. Experience taught a necessity that they
Wide discretion is accompanied by heavy responsibility on trial courts to protect the practice from any misuse.
The question permitted by the trial court, however, involves several features that may be worthy of comment. Its form invited hearsay; it asked about an arrest, not
Since the whole inquiry, as we have pointed out, is calculated to ascertain the general talk of people about defendant, rather than the witness' own knowledge of him, the form of inquiry, "Have you heard?" has general approval, and "Do you know?" is not allowed.
A character witness may be cross-examined as to an arrest whether or not it culminated in a conviction, according to the overwhelming weight of authority.
Arrest without more does not, in law any more than in reason, impeach the integrity or impair the credibility of a witness. It happens to the innocent as well as the guilty. Only a conviction, therefore, may be inquired about to undermine the trustworthiness of a witness.
Arrest without more may nevertheless impair or cloud one's reputation. False arrest may do that. Even to be acquitted may damage one's good name if the community receives the verdict with a wink and chooses to remember defendant as one who ought to have been convicted. A conviction, on the other hand, may be accepted as a misfortune or an injustice, and even enhance the standing of one who mends his ways and lives it down. Reputation is the net balance of so many debits and credits that the law does not attach the finality to a conviction, when
The inquiry as to an arrest is permissible also because the prosecution has a right to test the qualifications of the witness to bespeak the community opinion. If one never heard the speculations and rumors in which even one's friends indulge upon his arrest, the jury may doubt whether he is capable of giving any very reliable conclusions as to his reputation.
In this case the crime inquired about was receiving stolen goods; the trial was for bribery. The Court of Appeals thought this dissimilarity of offenses too great to sustain the inquiry in logic, though conceding that it is authorized by preponderance of authority. It asks us to substitute the Illinois rule which allows inquiry about arrest, but only for very closely similar if not identical charges, in place of the rule more generally adhered to in this country and in England.
The good character which the defendant had sought to establish was broader than the crime charged and included the traits of "honesty and truthfulness" and "being a law-abiding citizen." Possession of these characteristics would seem as incompatible with offering a bribe to a revenue agent as with receiving stolen goods. The crimes may be unlike, but both alike proceed from the same defects of character which the witnesses said this defendant was reputed not to exhibit. It is not only by comparison with the crime on trial but
The inquiry here concerned an arrest twenty-seven years before the trial. Events a generation old are likely to be lived down and dropped from the present thought and talk of the community and to be absent from the knowledge of younger or more recent acquaintances. The court in its discretion may well exclude inquiry about rumors of an event so remote, unless recent misconduct revived them. But two of these witnesses dated their acquaintance with defendant as commencing thirty years before the trial. Defendant, on direct examination, voluntarily called attention to his conviction twenty years before. While the jury might conclude that a matter so old and indecisive as a 1920 arrest would shed little light on the present reputation and hence propensities of the defendant, we cannot say that, in the context of this evidence and in the absence of objection on this specific ground, its admission was an abuse of discretion.
We do not overlook or minimize the consideration that "the jury almost surely cannot comprehend the judge's limiting instruction," which disturbed the Court of Appeals. The refinements of the evidentiary rules on this
We end, as we began, with the observation that the law regulating the offering and testing of character testimony may merit many criticisms. England and some states have overhauled the practice by statute.
The law of evidence relating to proof of reputation in criminal cases has developed almost entirely at the hands of state courts of last resort, which have such questions frequently before them. This Court, on the other hand, has contributed little to this or to any phase of the law of evidence, for the reason, among others, that it has had extremely rare occasion to decide such issues, as the paucity of citations in this opinion to our own writings attests. It is obvious that a court which can make only infrequent sallies into the field cannot recast the body of case law on this subject in many, many years, even if it were clear what the rules should be.
We concur in the general opinion of courts, textwriters and the profession that much of this law is archaic, paradoxical and full of compromises and compensations by which an irrational advantage to one side is offset by a poorly reasoned counterprivilege to the other. But somehow it has proved a workable even if clumsy system when moderated by discretionary controls in the hands of a wise and strong trial court. To pull one misshapen stone out of the grotesque structure is more likely simply to upset its present balance between adverse interests than to establish a rational edifice.
The present suggestion is that we adopt for all federal courts a new rule as to cross-examination about prior arrest, adhered to by the courts of only one state and
The judgment is
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, concurring.
Despite the fact that my feelings run in the general direction of the views expressed by MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE in his dissent, I join the Court's opinion. I do so because I believe it to be unprofitable, on balance, for appellate courts to formulate rigid rules for the exclusion of evidence in courts of law that outside them would not be regarded as clearly irrelevant in the determination of issues. For well-understood reasons this Court's occasional ventures in formulating such rules hardly encourage confidence in denying to the federal trial courts a power of control over the allowable scope of cross-examination possessed by trial judges in practically all State courts. After all, such uniformity of rule in the conduct of trials is the crystallization of experience even when due allowance is made for the force of imitation. To reject such an impressive body of experience would imply a more dependable wisdom in a matter of this sort than I can claim.
To leave the District Courts of the United States the discretion given to them by this decision presupposes a
MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE, with whom MR. JUSTICE MURPHY joins, dissenting.
The Court's opinion candidly and interestingly points out the anomalous features characterizing the exclusion and admission of so-called character evidence in criminal cases. It also for the first time puts the stamp of the Court's approval upon the most anomalous and, what is more important, the most unfair stage in this evidentiary sequence.
There are three stages. The first denies the prosecution the right to attack the defendant's reputation as part of its case in chief, either by proof of bad general reputation or by proof of specific derogatory incidents disconnected from the one charged as the crime. The second permits the defendant, at his option, to prove by qualified witnesses that he bears a good general reputation or at least one not tarnished by ill-repute. The witness is forbidden, however, to go into particular incidents or details of the defendant's life and conduct. The witness, once qualified, can state only the general conclusion of the community concerning the defendant's character as the witness knows that reputation. The third stage comprehends the prosecution's rebuttal, and particularly the latitude of cross-examination to be allowed.
I do not agree that this whole body of law is anomalous, unless indeed all the law of evidence with its numerous rules of exclusion and exceptions to them is to be so regarded. Anomalies there are, no doubt with much room
Moreover, I cannot agree that, in the sequence of the three stages relating to character evidence, the anomalous quality is equally present in each. In my judgment there is a vast difference in this respect between the rulings summarizing our experience in the first two stages and those affecting the third.
Regardless of all considerations of mere logical consistency, I should suppose there would be few now, whether lawyers or laymen, who would advocate change in the prevailing rules governing the first two stages of the sequence. In criminal causes especially, there are sound reasons basic to our system of criminal justice which justify initially excluding the Government from showing the defendant's bad general character or reputation.
The common law has not grown in the tradition of convicting a man and sending him to prison because he is generally a bad man or generally regarded as one. General bad character, much less general bad reputation, has not yet become a criminal offense in our scheme. Our whole tradition is that a man can be punished by criminal sanctions only for specific acts defined beforehand to be criminal, not for general misconduct or bearing a reputation for such misconduct.
That tradition lies at the heart of our criminal process. And it is the foundation of the rule of evidence which denies to the prosecution the right to show generally or by specific details that a defendant bears a bad general
The rule which allows the defendant to prove his good standing by general reputation is, of course, a kind of exception to the hearsay rule of exclusion, though one may inquire how else could reputation be proved than by hearsay if it is to be proved at all. This indeed presents the substantial question. Apart from its long acceptance, Edgington v. United States, 164 U.S. 361, the rule allowing the evidence to come in rests on very different considerations from the one which forbids the Government to bring in proof of bad public character as part of its case in chief. The defendant's proof comes as rebuttal. It is subject to none of the dangers involving the possibility of conviction for generally bad conduct or general repute for it which would characterize permitting the prosecution initially to show bad general reputation. The basic reason for excluding the latter does not apply to the defendant's tender of proof.
On the positive side the rule is justified by the ancient law which pronounces that a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches. True, men of good general repute may not deserve it. Or they may slip and fall in particular situations. But by common experience this is more often the exception than the rule. Moreover, most often in close cases, where the proof leaves one in doubt, the evidence of general regard by one's fellows may be the weight which turns the scales of justice. It may indeed be sufficient to create a clear conviction of
The apparent anomaly which excludes the prosecution's proof of bad character in the beginning but lets in the defendant's proof of good character is thus only apparent. It is part and parcel of our scheme which forbids conviction for other than specific acts criminal in character and which, in their trial, casts over the defendant the presumption of innocence until he is proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. To take away his right to bring in any substantial and pertinent proof bearing upon the existence of reasonable doubt is, so far, to nullify the rule requiring removal of that doubt. I reject the Court's intimation that these considerations have to some extent become obsolete or without substantial effects because we now live in cities more generally than formerly. They are basic parts of our plan, perhaps the more important to be observed because so much of our life now is urban.
But, for a variety of reasons, the law allows the defendant to prove no more than his general reputation, by witnesses qualified to report concerning it. He cannot show particular acts of virtue to offset the proof of his specific criminality on any theory that "By their fruits ye shall know them." Whether this be because such proof is irrelevant, is too distracting and time-consuming, is summarized in the general report of good character, or perhaps for all of these reasons, the rule is settled, and I think rightly, which restricts the proof to general repute.
Thus far, whatever the differences in logic, differences which as usual inhere in the premises from which thinking starts, there is no general disagreement or dissatisfaction in the results. All of the states and the federal judicial
But the situation is different when we come to the third stage, that of the prosecution's rebuttal. Obviously rebuttal there should be, when the defendant has opened a line of inquiry closed to the prosecution and has sought to gain advantage by proof which it has had no chance to counteract. But the question of how the rebuttal shall be made presents the difficult problem.
There can be no sound objection, of course, to calling witnesses who will qualify as the witnesses for the defense are required to do, but who also will contradict their testimony. And the prosecution may inquire concerning the qualifications of the witnesses for the defense to speak concerning the defendant's general reputation. Thus far there is nothing to exceed the bounds of rebuttal or take the case out of the issues as made.
But these have not been the limits of proof and cross-examination. For, in the guise of "testing the standards of the witness" when he speaks to reputation, the door has been thrown wide open to trying the defendant's whole life, both in general reputation and in specific incident. What is worse, this is without opportunity for the defendant to rebut either the fact or the innuendo for which the evidence is tendered more generally than otherwise. Hardly any incident, however remote or derogatory, but can be drawn out by asking the witness who testifies to the defendant's good character, "Have you heard this" or "Have you heard that." And many incidents, wholly innocent in quality, can be turned by the prosecutor, through an inflection or tone, to cast aspersion upon the defendant by the mere asking of the question, without hope of affirmative response from the witness.
The dangers, the potential damage and prejudice to the defendant and his cause, have not been more clearly summarized
These consequences are not denied. But it is said two modes of protection are available to the accused. One is to refrain from opening the inquiry into his reputation. That answer would have weight if the rebuttal were limited to inquiry concerning the witness' opportunity for knowing the accused and his reputation and to producing contrary evidence by other witnesses of the same general sort as that which is refuted. But if the rule is sound which allows the accused to show his good repute and restricts him to that showing, it not only is anomalous, it is highly unjust, to exact, as the price for his doing so, throwing open to the prosecution the opportunity not only to rebut his proof but to call in question almost any specific act of his life or to insinuate without proving that he has committed other acts, leaving him no chance to reply. A fair rule either would afford this chance or would restrict the prosecution's counterproof in the same way his own is limited. The prevailing rule changes the whole character of the case, in a manner the rules applying to the two earlier stages seek to avoid.
The facts in this case, it seems to me, show the inadequacy of any such general and largely unrestricted delegation. They demonstrate how far and how unfairly the prosecution may be allowed to go in bringing extraneous and immaterial matters to the jury's attention, with however a probable effect of prejudice. Petitioner himself had made a clean breast of his twenty-year-old conviction for violating the New York trademark laws. That fact of course was of some use for testing his character witnesses' standards for speaking to his general repute, although the conviction was so old that conceivably it could have but little weight on the accused's reputation in 1947.
Then the prosecution went back seven years further and inquired whether the witnesses had heard that petitioner was arrested "on October 11th, 1920" for receiving stolen goods. None of the witnesses had heard of this fact. The court solemnly instructed the jury that they were not to consider that the incident took place, that all that was happening was that the prosecutor was testing the witness' standard of opinion of the accused's reputation. This, after the court out of the jury's presence had required the prosecutor to make proof satisfactory to the court that the incident had taken place.
The very form of the question was itself notice of the fact to the jury. They well might assume, as men of common sense, that the court would not allow the question if the fact were only fiction. And why "on October 11th, 1920," rather than merely "in 1920" or "Have you ever heard of the defendant's being arrested, other than
Moreover, I do not think the mere question of knowledge of a prior arrest is one proper to be asked, even if inquiry as to clearly derogatory acts is to be permitted. Of course men take such an inquiry as reflecting upon the person arrested. But, for use in a criminal prosecution, I do not think they should be allowed to do so. The mere fact of a single arrest twenty-seven years before trial, without further showing of criminal proceedings or their outcome, whether acquittal or conviction, seldom could have substantial bearing upon one's present general reputation; indeed it is not per se a derogatory fact. But it is put in generally, and I think was put in evidence in this case, not to call in question the witness' standard of opinion but, by the very question, to give room for play of the jury's unguarded conjecture and prejudice. This is neither fair play nor due process. It is a perversion of the criminal process as we know it. For it permits what the rule applied in the first stage forbids, trial of the accused not only for general bad conduct or reputation but also for conjecture, gossip, innuendo and insinuation.
Accordingly, I think this judgment should be reversed. I also think the prevailing practice should be changed.
". . . I instruct the jury that what is happening now is this: the defendant has called character witnesses, and the basis for the evidence given by those character witnesses is the reputation of the defendant in the community, and since the defendant tenders the issue of his reputation the prosecution may ask the witness if she has heard of various incidents in his career. I say to you that regardless of her answer you are not to assume that the incidents asked about actually took place. All that is happening is that this witness' standard of opinion of the reputation of the defendant is being tested. Is that clear?"
In overruling the second objection to the question the Court said:
"Again I say to the jury there is no proof that Mr. Michelson was arrested for receiving stolen goods in 1920, there isn't any such proof. All this witness has been asked is whether he had heard of that. There is nothing before you on that issue. Now would you base your decision on the case fairly in spite of the fact that that question has been asked? You would? All right."
The charge included the following:
"In connection with the character evidence in the case I permitted a question whether or not the witness knew that in 1920 this defendant had been arrested for receiving stolen goods. I tried to give you the instruction then that that question was permitted only to test the standards of character evidence that these character witnesses seemed to have. There isn't any proof in the case that could be produced before you legally within the rules of evidence that this defendant was arrested in 1920 for receiving stolen goods, and that fact you are not to hold against him; nor are you to assume what the consequences of that arrest were. You just drive it from your mind so far as he is concerned, and take it into consideration only in weighing the evidence of the character witnesses."
"Wigmore, Evidence (3d ed. 1940) § 988, after noting that `such inquiries are almost universally admitted,' not as `impeachment by extrinsic testimony of particular acts of misconduct,' but as means of testing the character `witness' grounds of knowledge,' continues with these comments: `But the serious objection to them is that practically the above distinction — between rumors of such conduct, as affecting reputation, and the fact of it as violating the rule against particular facts — cannot be maintained in the mind of the jury. The rumor of the misconduct, when admitted, goes far, in spite of all theory and of the judge's charge, towards fixing the misconduct as a fact upon the other person, and thus does three improper things, — (1) it violates the fundamental rule of fairness that prohibits the use of such facts, (2) it gets at them by hearsay only, and not by trustworthy testimony, and (3) it leaves the other person no means of defending himself by denial or explanation, such as he would otherwise have had if the rule had allowed that conduct to be made the subject of an issue. Moreover, these are not occurrences of possibility, but of daily practice. This method of inquiry or cross-examination is frequently resorted to by counsel for the very purpose of injuring by indirection a character which they are forbidden directly to attack in that way; they rely upon the mere putting of the question (not caring that it is answered negatively) to convey their covert insinuation. The value of the inquiry for testing purposes is often so small and the opportunities of its abuse by underhand ways are so great that the practice may amount to little more than a mere subterfuge, and should be strictly supervised by forbidding it to counsel who do not use it in good faith.'
"Because, as Wigmore says, the jury almost surely cannot comprehend the judge's limiting instruction, the writer of this opinion wishes that the United States Supreme Court would tell us to follow what appears to be the Illinois rule, i.e., that such questions are improper unless they relate to offenses similar, to those for which the defendant is on trial. See Aiken v. People, 183 Ill. 215, 55 N.E. 695; cf. People v. Hannon, 381 Ill. 206, 44 N.E.2d 923."
". . . evidence of good character is to be used like any other, once it gets before the jury, and the less they are told about the grounds for its admission, or what they shall do with it, the more likely they are to use it sensibly. The subject seems to gather mist which discussion serves only to thicken, and which we can scareely hope to dissipate by anything further we can add." L. Hand in Nash v. United States, 54 F.2d 1006, 1007.
In opening its cyclopedic review of authorities from many jurisdictions, Corpus Juris Secundum summarizes that the rules regulating proof of character "have been criticized as illogical, unscientific, and anomalous, explainable only as archaic survivals of compurgation or of states of legal development when the jury personally knew the facts on which their verdict was based." 32 C.J.S. Evidence § 433.