Michelson v. United States 335 U.S. 469, 69 S.Ct. 213, 93 L.Ed. 168 (1948)
Michelson was arrested and charged with bribing a Federal
Michelson argued that the Federal agent had asked him for
a bribe and threatened him, so it wasn't his fault.
At trial, Michelson took the witness stand and admitted
that he had been convicted for selling counterfeit watches. On
cross-examination he denied ever having been arrested for any other crime.
Michelson brought forth several witnesses to attest to
what an upstanding guy he was, and how they hadn't heard anything to make
them think he might be a criminal.
During cross examination, the prosecution asked the
witnesses whether they were aware that Michelson had also once been
arrested for receiving stolen property?
Michelson objected on the grounds that this testimony was
The Trial Judge allowed the jury to hear the question, but
gave them a limiting instruction warning them that there was no evidence
that Michelson had actually been arrested for that crime.
The question was only permitted to test the standards of
character evidence that these character witnesses seem to have.
Basically, that you can't say that you know someone is a
good guy if you aren't familiar with how shady his past may have been.
The Trial Court convicted Michelson of bribery. He
The Appellate Court affirmed. Michelson appealed.
The US Supreme Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court found that under the common law, the
prosecution is not allowed to introduce evidence of a defendant's evil character
to establish a probability of his guilt.
"The State may not show defendant's prior trouble
with the law, specific criminal acts, or ill name among his neighbors,
even though such facts might logically be persuasive that he is by
propensity a probable perpetrator of the crime."
However, if a defendant calls character witnesses then
the prosecution may pursue the inquiry for the limited purpose of
impeaching the witnesses' credibility.
Basically, the character witnesses are only believable
if it can be established that they know the character of the defendant.
In this case, the prosecution was attempting to establish that
Michelson's witnesses were unaware he had been arrested, therefore when
they said that he was an upstanding citizen, their opinions could be
construed to be uninformed and therefore unreliable.
Testimony about character is "accepted only from a
witness whose knowledge of defendant's habitat and surroundings is
intimate enough so that his failure to hear of any relevant ill repute
is an assurance that no ugly rumors were about."
The Court warned that the prosecution must base their
questions on at least some evidence. They could not "take a random
shot at the reputation by asking a groundless question to waft an
unwarranted innuendo into the jury box."
This case was decided under the common law. Today, it
would be covered by FRE 404.