Federal Rules of Evidence – Rule 405
(through July 14, 2022)
Generally, you can only prove character by general reputation or opinion testimony—not by pointing to specific conduct. But you can discuss specific character conduct when the character trait is an essential element of a claim or defense. And on cross-examination, you can challenge a character witness’s opinion by asking about specific contrary conduct.
(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.
Selected Committee Notes
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.
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Key Rules (MBE/MEE)
- FRE 103 – Evidence Rulings
- FRE 104 – Preliminary Questions
- FRE 105 – Limiting How Evidence may be Used
- FRE 106 – Completeness Rule
- FRE 201 – Judicial Notice
- FRE 301 – Presumptions
- FRE 401 – Relevance
- FRE 402 – Irrelevant = Inadmissible
- FRE 403 – Excluding the Prejudicial, Confusing, etc.
- FRE 404 – Character Evidence
- FRE 405 – Proving Character
- FRE 406 – Habit, Routine
- FRE 407 – Subsequent Remedial Measures
- FRE 408 – Compromise Negotiations
- FRE 409 – Offers to Pay Expenses
- FRE 410 – Pleas, Related Statements
- FRE 411 – Liability Insurance
- FRE 412 – Victim’s Sexual Predisposition
- FRE 413, 414, 415 – Other Sex-Related Rules
- FRE 501 – Privilege in General
- FRE 502 – Attorney-Client Privilege, Work-Product Doctrine
- FRE 601 – Witness Competency
- FRE 602 – Personal Knowledge
- FRE 605 – Judge as Witness
- FRE 606 – Juror as Witness
- FRE 607 – Impeachment
- FRE 608 – Honest, Dishonest Character
- FRE 609 – Evidence of Criminal Conviction
- FRE 610 – Religious Beliefs
- FRE 611 – Mode, Order of Evidence
- FRE 612 – Recollection Refreshed
- FRE 613 – Prior Statements
- FRE 614 – Court Witness Examination
- FRE 615 – Excluding Witnesses
- FRE 701 – Non-Expert Opinion
- FRE 702 – Expert Opinion
- FRE 703 – Bases of Expert Opinion
- FRE 704 – Ultimate Issue
- FRE 705 – Disclosing Underlying Data
- FRE 801 – Hearsay Defined
- FRE 802 – Rule Against Hearsay
- FRE 803 – Strong Hearsay Exceptions
- FRE 804 – Weak Hearsay Exceptions
- FRE 805 – Double Hearsay
- FRE 806 – Impeaching Hearsay Declarants
- FRE 807 – Residual Hearsay Exception
- FRE 901 – Authentication, Identification
- FRE 902 – Self-Authenticating Evidence
- FRE 1001 – Original Defined
- FRE 1002 – Original Sometimes Required
- FRE 1003 – When Copies Generally Admissible
- FRE 1004 – Other Times Admissible
- FRE 1005 – Public Record Copies Often Admissible
- FRE 1006 – Summaries
- FRE 1007 – Acknowledged Content
- FRE 1008 – Functions of Court, Jury
- FRE 1101 – Rules’ Applicability