Old Chief v. United States
519 U.S. 172, 117 S.Ct. 644, 136 L.Ed.2d 574 (1997)

  • A guy named Old Chief was involved in a ‘fracas’ where some shots were fired.  He was arrested and charged with assault and possession of a firearm.
    • Under US law, it is illegal for anyone who has been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in jail to possess a gun.
    • Old Chief had previously been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.
  • At trial, Old Chief asked the Court to refrain from mentioning the assault conviction.
    • Old Chief offered to admit that he was convicted of an unspecified crime, which would be enough to establish that his possession of the firearm was illegal.
    • Old Chief argued that telling the jury he had previously been convicted of assault (essentially the same crime as he was charged with here) would be too prejudicial, and therefore inadmissible under FRE 403.
    • The prosecution argued that they should be allowed to prove their case however they wanted to, and since the prior conviction was relevant, they should be allowed to introduce the evidence.
  • The Trial Judge allowed the evidence of Old Chief’s conviction to be admitted.
    • The Trial Judge found that the prosecution was under no obligation to accept Old Chief offer of a stipulation.
  • The Trial Court found Old Chief guilty of assault.  He appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.  Old Chief appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that the prosecution is entitled to prove a prior felony offense through introduction of probative evidence.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and said that the evidence was not admissible.
    • The US Supreme Court found that under FRE 403, evidence is inadmissible if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
      • See also, FRE 404(b), which says that evidence of other crimes is not admissible to prove the character of the person in order to show actions in conformity with.
    • The Court found that specifically mentioning the crime Old Chief had been convicted of had very little probative value, since all that needed to be established was that he was convicted of a crime.  On the other hand, mentioning that he had been convicted of the same crime he was now being charged with had substantial prejudicial effect, since the jury would likely use the evidence for purposes excluded by FRE 404(b).
      • Evidence shouldn’t simply be weighed on its probative vs. prejudicial value, but should also take into consideration the presence or absence of alternative evidence probative to the same issue.
    • The Court noted that the result in this case isn’t necessarily conclusive for all cases.  In this case there was no cognizable difference between the evidentiary significance of an admission and the evidence the prosecution wanted to introduce.  But that might not always be the case.
      • If the prosecution could show that there would be more ‘evidentiary depth’ to introducing evidence, as opposed to just accepting an admission, then the evidence might be admissible.
    • The Court noted, that one party may not generally stipulate another out of its proof, i.e., the offering party’s need for evidentiary richness and narrative integrity because:
      • Evidence may have unforeseen relevance.
      • Need to convince jury to be morally reasonable.
      • Need to satisfy jurors’ expectations.
      • Need to present jury with “picture” of events.