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 agent.
    • 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 inadmissible.
  • 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 appealed.
  • 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.