Michelson v. United StatesAnnotate this Case
335 U.S. 469 (1948)
U.S. Supreme Court
Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469 (1948)
Michelson v. United States
Argued October 14-15, 1948
Decided December 20, 1948
335 U.S. 469
1. In a trial in a federal court for bribery of a federal officer, the defendant admitted the payment, but claimed that it was induced by the officer, and the case hinged on whether the jury believed the defendant or the officer. The defendant's character witnesses testified that they had known the defendant for from 15 to 30 years, and that he had a good reputation for "honesty and truthfulness" and for "being a law-abiding citizen." In cross-examining them, the prosecutor was permitted to ask whether they had heard that the accused had been arrested 27 years previously for receiving stolen goods. The trial judge had satisfied himself in the absence of the jury that the question related to an actual
occurrence, and he carefully instructed the jury as to the limited purpose of this evidence.
Held. In the circumstances of this case and in view of the care taken by the trial judge to protect the rights of the defendant, permitting the prosecutor to ask this question was not reversible error. Pp. 335 U. S. 470-487.
2. The law does not invest the defendant with a presumption of good character; it simply closes the whole matter of character, disposition and reputation on the prosecution's case in chief. The defendant may introduce evidence tending to prove his good reputation, but, if he does so, it throws open the entire subject, and the prosecution may then cross-examine defendant's witnesses to test their credibility and qualifications, and may also introduce contradictory evidence. Pp. 335 U. S. 475-479.
3. Both the propriety and abuse of hearsay reputation testimony, on both sides, depend on numerous and subtle considerations, difficult to detect or appraise from a cold record. Therefore, rarely and only on clear showing of prejudicial abuse of discretion, will appellate courts disturb rulings of trial courts on this subject. P. 335 U. S. 480.
4. In this case, the trial judge was scrupulous to safeguard the practice against any misuse. P. 335 U. S. 481.
5. A character witness may be cross-examined as to knowledge of rumors of defendant's prior arrest, whether or not it culminated in a conviction. Pp. 335 U. S. 482-483.
6. It is not only by comparison with the crime on trial, but by comparison with the reputation asserted, that a court may judge whether the prior arrest should be made the subject of inquiry. Pp. 335 U. S. 483-484.
7. That the inquiry concerned an arrest 27 years before the trial did not make its admission an abuse of discretion in the circumstances of this case -- especially since two of the witnesses had testified that they had known defendant for 30 years, defendant, on direct examination, had voluntarily called attention to his conviction of a misdemeanor 20 years before, and since no objection was made on this specific ground. P. 335 U. S. 484.
8. Notwithstanding the difficulty which a jury might have in comprehending instructions as to the limited purpose of such evidence, a defendant who elects to introduce witnesses to prove his good reputation for honesty and truthfulness and for being a law-abiding citizen has no valid complaint about the latitude which existing law allows to the prosecution to meet this issue by cross-examination of his character witnesses. Pp. 335 U. S. 484-485.
165 F.2d 732 affirmed.
Petitioner was convicted in a federal district court of bribing a federal officer. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 165 F.2d 732. This Court granted certiorari. 333 U.S. 866. Affirmed, p. 335 U. S. 487.