Summary of Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469 (1948)
Facts: Df was convicted of bribing a federal IRS agent, after the govt proved he paid a large amt to the agent in order to influence his official action. The df admitted paying the money, but claimed the agent threatened him. ON direct the Df’s counsel est. that Df had a prior arrest for misdemeanor counterfeiting watch facings. On cross Df claimed that he had not been arrested for any other offense. The prosecution inquired whether the character witnesses had known of his conviction for counterfeiting conviction and arrest for receiving stolen property 27 years earlier. None had heard of the stolen property arrest.
Issue: Whether the trial ct properly allowed the prosecution to cross examine the character witnesses and inquire about an arrest for stolen property 27 years earlier to rebut the character of the Df?
Procedure: Conviction by jury; Ct of Appeals affirmed stating the admission was permissible. U.S. S. Ct. affirmed.
Rule: The state may not show Df’s prior trouble with the law, specific criminal acts, or ill name among his neighbors as to support as persuasion that Df’s propensity as a probable perpetrator of the crime, but if the Df calls character witnesses the prosecution may pursue the inquiry with contra witnesses.
Rationale: This line of inquiry is open to the Df b/c character is relevant in resolving probabilities of guilt. Witnesses may not testify about the Df’s specific acts, conduct, possession of a particular disposition, mental or moral traits, or his own opinion that the Df possesses a gen. or specific character, inconsistent with the commission of the acts charged. The witness may summarize what he had heard in the community, if the witness is qualified. Qualification to give an opinion occurs by a showing that the witness knew/knows the Df, the community the Df has lived, and the circles in which the Df has moved; i.e., affirmative knowledge of the Df’s reputation. That witness is subject to cross as to the contents and extent of the hearsay on which he bases his conclusions, and he may be required to disclose rumors and reports that are current even if they do not affect his own conclusions. The tr ct has wide discretion, and her the judge took great pains to ascertain that the target of the question was an actual event and not a scurrilous comment or innuendo. A character witness may be cross-examined as to an arrest whether or not it culminated in a conviction, b/c an arrest without more does not impeach the integrity or impair the credibility of a witness. Only a conviction undermines the trustworthiness of a witness. The inquiry as to an arrest is permissible b/c the State has the right to test the qualifications of the witness to bespeak the community opinion.
The good character of the Df was broader than the crime charged and included traits of honesty and truthfulness, and being a law abiding citizen. It was proper cross b/c reports of an arrest for receiving stolen property tend to weaken the assertion that the Df was hones and a law abiding citizen. The cross make take in as much ground as the testimony it is designed to verify. In the context of this evidence and in the absence of an objection on this specific ground, the admission was not an abuse of discretion.