(a) By Reputation or Opinion. When evidence of a person’s character or character trait is admissible, it may be proved by testimony about the person’s reputation or by testimony in the form of an opinion. On cross-examination of the character witness, the court may allow an inquiry into relevant specific instances of the person’s conduct.
(b) By Specific Instances of Conduct. When a person’s character or character trait is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, the character or trait may also be proved by relevant specific instances of the person’s conduct.
Summary and Explanation
Federal Rule of Evidence 405 addresses the methods of proving character in court proceedings, as a supplement to Rule 404. This rule is a part of the United States Federal Rules of Evidence, which guide the admissibility of evidence in federal courts.
Key aspects of Rule 405 are:
- Methods of Proving Character:
- By Reputation or Opinion: When character evidence is admissible (as allowed under Rule 404), it can be proved by testimony about the person’s reputation or by testimony in the form of an opinion. For example, a witness may testify that the defendant is known for being peaceful, to support a defense claim in an assault case.
- By Specific Instances of Conduct: Specific acts, incidents, or behaviors can be used to prove character only in certain situations. This is usually allowed in cases involving cross-examination of character witnesses or when character is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense. For instance, in a defamation case, specific instances of the plaintiff’s conduct might be relevant to prove their character.
- Limitations on Evidence Types:
- The rule limits the use of specific instances of conduct because such evidence can be prejudicial and may distract from the main issues of the case. It’s also considered less reliable than reputation or opinion evidence.
- Contextual Application:
- Rule 405 is often applied in conjunction with Rule 404. While Rule 404 sets the boundaries for when character evidence is admissible, Rule 405 specifies how that character can be proved once it’s deemed admissible.
In summary, Federal Rule of Evidence 405 outlines the methods for proving character in a court case, emphasizing the use of reputation or opinion testimony. It allows the use of specific instances of conduct in limited situations, primarily to prevent trials from devolving into examinations of a person’s overall character, which could lead to unfair biases or distractions from the key issues of the case.
(Pub. L. 93–595, §1, Jan. 2, 1975, 88 Stat. 1932; Mar. 2, 1987, eff. Oct. 1, 1987; Apr. 26, 2011, eff. Dec. 1, 2011.)
Notes of Advisory Committee on Proposed Rules
The rule deals only with allowable methods of proving character, not with the admissibility of character evidence, which is covered in Rule 404.
Of the three methods of proving character provided by the rule, evidence of specific instances of conduct is the most convincing. At the same time it possesses the greatest capacity to arouse prejudice, to confuse, to surprise, and to consume time. Consequently the rule confines the use of evidence of this kind to cases in which character is, in the strict sense, in issue and hence deserving of a searching inquiry. When character is used circumstantially and hence occupies a lesser status in the case, proof may be only by reputation and opinion. These latter methods are also available when character is in issue. This treatment is, with respect to specific instances of conduct and reputation, conventional contemporary common law doctrine. McCormick §153.
In recognizing opinion as a means of proving character, the rule departs from usual contemporary practice in favor of that of an earlier day. See 7 Wigmore §1986, pointing out that the earlier practice permitted opinion and arguing strongly for evidence based on personal knowledge and belief as contrasted with “the secondhand, irresponsible product of multiplied guesses and gossip which we term ‘reputation’.” It seems likely that the persistence of reputation evidence is due to its largely being opinion in disguise. Traditionally character has been regarded primarily in moral overtones of good and bad: chaste, peaceable, truthful, honest. Nevertheless, on occasion nonmoral considerations crop up, as in the case of the incompetent driver, and this seems bound to happen increasingly. If character is defined as the kind of person one is, then account must be taken of varying ways of arriving at the estimate. These may range from the opinion of the employer who has found the man honest to the opinion of the psychiatrist based upon examination and testing. No effective dividing line exists between character and mental capacity, and the latter traditionally has been provable by opinion.
According to the great majority of cases, on cross-examination inquiry is allowable as to whether the reputation witness has heard of particular instances of conduct pertinent to the trait in question. Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469, 69 S.Ct. 213, 93 L.Ed. 168 (1948); Annot., 47 A.L.R.2d 1258. The theory is that, since the reputation witness relates what he has heard, the inquiry tends to shed light on the accuracy of his hearing and reporting. Accordingly, the opinion witness would be asked whether he knew, as well as whether he had heard. The fact is, of course, that these distinctions are of slight if any practical significance, and the second sentence of subdivision (a) eliminates them as a factor in formulating questions. This recognition of the propriety of inquiring into specific instances of conduct does not circumscribe inquiry otherwise into the bases of opinion and reputation testimony.
The express allowance of inquiry into specific instances of conduct on cross-examination in subdivision (a) and the express allowance of it as part of a case in chief when character is actually in issue in subdivision (b) contemplate that testimony of specific instances is not generally permissible on the direct examination of an ordinary opinion witness to character. Similarly as to witnesses to the character of witnesses under Rule 608(b). Opinion testimony on direct in these situations ought in general to correspond to reputation testimony as now given, i.e., be confined to the nature and extent of observation and acquaintance upon which the opinion is based. See Rule 701.
Notes of Committee on the Judiciary, House Report No. 93–650
Rule 405(a) as submitted proposed to change existing law by allowing evidence of character in the form of opinion as well as reputation testimony. Fearing, among other reasons, that wholesale allowance of opinion testimony might tend to turn a trial into a swearing contest between conflicting character witnesses, the Committee decided to delete from this Rule, as well as from Rule 608(a) which involves a related problem, reference to opinion testimony.
Notes of Conference Committee, House Report No. 93–1597
The Senate makes two language changes in the nature of conforming amendments. The Conference adopts the Senate amendments.
Notes of Advisory Committee on Rules—1987 Amendment
The amendment is technical. No substantive change is intended.
Committee Notes on Rules—2011 Amendment
The language of Rule 405 has been amended as part of the restyling of the Evidence Rules to make them more easily understood and to make style and terminology consistent throughout the rules. These changes are intended to be stylistic only. There is no intent to change any result in any ruling on evidence admissibility.