Character evidence refers to any evidence regarding the character of an individual. An individual’s character includes their distinct mental and moral qualities or groups of qualities that are unique to that individual. As a general rule of evidence, character evidence is inadmissible, except in certain situations.
Character evidence is admissible at trial in some circumstances and inadmissible in others. This is largely because presumptions must be avoided in criminal cases. It is improper to presume that because an individual is a “good person” they could not have committed a crime. Conversely, it is improper to presume that an individual who has a criminal record must be guilty or is more likely to be guilty in their current case.
Good character evidence is evidence that paints the accused (or another individual) in a good light. Bad character evidence is evidence that tends to paint the individual in a negative light and suggests that they are less trustworthy. Character evidence may be related to the accused or another party to the offence including the complainant or witness(es).
Person A is on trial for sexual assault. Person A has a history of committing sexual assaults in the past. During trial, the Crown attempts to bring in a witness to testify that person A is known as a “bad person” around town and is the kind of person who would commit such an offence.
The introduction of evidence of the character of the accused is not permitted and the Crown’s witness will not be permitted to testify regarding person A’s character.
Is Character Evidence Admissible in Court?
Whether or not character evidence is admissible as evidence in a criminal trial depends largely on who the evidence is about.
Evidence of the complainant’s character is generally admissible as evidence at trial if it is relevant to an issue in the case. The defence is permitted to introduce evidence of specific acts of misconduct committed by the complainant, evidence of the complainant’s negative reputation, and expert opinion evidence provided by a properly qualified psychiatrist.
Defendants are, however, prohibited from introducing evidence of the past sexual history of the complainant. If the accused wishes to introduce such evidence, they must make a section 276 application to the judge requesting permission.
Bad character evidence of a witness in a criminal matter is permissible in certain situations. Bad character evidence of a witness may be tendered to attack the credibility of the individual. A party may introduce the following bad character evidence about a witness: evidence of general bad character, a general reputation for lack of truthfulness, evidence of corruption or bias, or evidence or prior convictions or other discreditable acts.
As a general rule, the Crown is not permitted to call character evidence against the accused as circumstantial proof of guilt. This includes both good and bad character evidence. The Crown may not call a witness to testify and say that the accused is a bad person and is the type of person who would commit the offence they have been charged with.
If, however, the accused introduced evidence of good character, the Crown may present evidence of bad character to refute the accused’s evidence. Evidence of bad character cannot be used directly to prove guilt. The Crown may also introduce bad character evidence in narrow circumstances where the evidence is relevant to an issue in the case. For example, if an accused was charged with human trafficking, evidence that they were associated with a gang that was known to participate in human trafficking would be permissible.
The accused, however, is permitted to introduce good character evidence on their own behalf in certain circumstances. A defendant may call a witness to provide good character evidence to suggest that it is unlikely that the accused committed the offence as charged or to bolster the credibility of the accused and the testimony they have provided during the trial. The evidence of character provided by the witness must be relevant to the offence the accused has been charged with.
Person A is on trial for assault. Person A calls several witnesses who have known him his whole life to testify that they have never known person A to be a violent person. This testimony may help to suggest that it is unlikely that the accused committed the assault and to bolster the accused’s own testimony that he did not commit the assault.
Character Evidence at Trial
When the court has determined that it will admit certain good character evidence on behalf of the accused, the evidence must be introduced in one of three ways:
- Expert witnesses may be utilized to introduce evidence of the accused’s general disposition. This evidence may be used to bolster the suggestion that it is unlikely that the accused committed the offence.
- Witnesses may provide testimony of the accused’s general reputation within the community regarding a particular trait. (i.e., accused is known as an honest person).
- Witnesses may provide testimony regarding specific acts of “good conduct” that help bolster the suggestion that the accused is of good character.
A witness providing good character evidence on behalf of the accused is not permitted to provide their personal opinion of the accused. Once the witness has provided their testimony on behalf of the accused, the Crown will be provided with an opportunity to cross-examine the witness on the evidence they just provided.
Once the defendant has introduced evidence of good character, the Crown will be given an opportunity to rebut the evidence. This is accomplished through the introduction of evidence to show that the accused is not of good character as they have alleged. This may include evidence of prior convictions, evidence of prior similar conduct, and evidence that the accused holds a different reputation than the one they have stated in court.
Character References as Evidence
Character references regarding the accused are sometimes utilized during the sentencing stage of a criminal matter. Once the accused has been convicted but has not yet been sentenced, they may submit character references to the sentencing judge. The judge will review these letters prior to the passing sentence.