Mar 11, 2022

Character as Evidence

Character as evidence

By: Tranquil G.S. Salvador III


“While the real character of a person is not determined by his reputation, it can be used to prove character evidence in court.”

Character is defined as the “qualities of mind and morals possessed by a person which distinguishes him from others” (Francisco, Evidence, 1996). Evidence of a person’s character or trait of character is not admissible in court for the purpose of proving an act that he committed on a particular occasion (Section 54, Rule 130, Rules on Evidence).

The Philippine Rules on Evidence apply character evidence differently in criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, the prosecution cannot, at the first instance, prove the bad moral character of the accused. The prosecution is bound by duty to establish the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt by proving the elements of the crime, without relying on the person’s bad character.

The prosecution must present witnesses who can give an account on how events or circumstances occurred, leading to the commission of the crime. Courts cannot entertain reports on the accused’s bad character since “character is never an issue in criminal prosecution unless the defendant (accused) chooses to make it one” (People v. Zackowitz, 254 N.Y. 192 [1930]).

According to the Zackowitz case, “[I]n a very real sense a defendant (accused) starts his life afresh when he stands before a jury, a prisoner at the bar” (Evidence, George Fisher). It means that regardless of the opinion of others about the accused’s bad character, which may have been brought about by previous acts or conduct, he is still entitled to the Constitutional presumption of innocence.

However, if there are no witnesses who can testify to identify the perpetrator or narrate the occurrence of the crime, the court may then rely on circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence can be the basis of conviction if: (a) there is more than one circumstance; (b) the facts from which the inferences are derived are proven [are true]; and (c) the combination of the circumstances produces a conviction beyond reasonable doubt (Section 4, Rule 133, Rules on Evidence).

Zackowitz also states that “[E]vidence that a person has a particular character trait generally is not admissible to show that the person acted in accordance with that trait at a particular time”. The prosecutor’s purpose “in offering evidence of [a] defendant’s weaponry was to prove him a man of vicious and dangerous propensities, who (…) was more likely to kill with deliberate and premeditated design than a man of irreproachable life and amiable manners” (Evidence, George Fisher).

Allowing the presentation of the bad character of the accused gives rise to unfair prejudice and confusion of issues. Courts may fall into the trap of only looking at the criminal records or reputation of the accused, which creates the perception of bad character, rather than proving the circumstances of the current charge. It may also lead the court to find the accused guilty when no crime was committed (Evidence, George Fisher).

While the prosecution cannot present the bad character of the accused at the first instance, the accused may prove his good character if it is pertinent to the moral trait involved in the offense charged (Section 54, Rule 130, Rules on Evidence). In simpler words, the accused may prove his good character in his defense. However, it must be noted that good character may be presented by the accused only if the offense for which he is charged presents issues of character.

The prosecution is permitted only to present the accused bad character during rebuttal (or after the defense’s presentation of evidence) to allow the former to meet and rebut the accused’s good character in his defense (Section 54, Rule 130, Rules on Evidence). Examples of pertinent character traits in offenses are: violence or quarrelsome character for murder or homicide, sexually perverse character for rape or acts of lasciviousness, and dishonesty or deceitful character for estafa and fraud.

There is a notion that only offenses under the Revised Penal Code have pertinent character traits and those under special laws have none. This is incorrect. There are offenses in special laws wherein moral traits may be relevant, such as dishonesty for Republic Act (RA) No. 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act), RA No. 7080 as amended by RA 7659 (An Act Defining or Penalizing the Crime of Plunder), and RA No. 10175 (Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012), or violence for RA 11479 (The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020).

However, there are indeed offenses in special laws or ordinances that do not put character traits in question, such as the illegal possession of drugs, illegal possession of firearms, or prohibited smoking in enclosed premises. These offenses cannot consider a defense of good character, no matter how impeccable the accused’s character is, since the offense is unquestionably punishable.

The victim’s character may be presented and proven to be relevant in establishing to a reasonable degree the probability of the offense charged (Section 54 (a)[1], Rule 130, Rules on Evidence). In rape and acts of lasciviousness, or in any prosecution involving the unchaste act perpetrated by a man against a woman where willingness is material, the question of the woman’s chastity is pertinent to the issue of consent (People v. Lee, G.R. No. 139070, May 29, 2002).

Proof of the victim’s bad moral character is not necessary in cases of murder committed with treachery and premeditation. However, in homicide cases where the defense tends to rely on proving self-defense, the known violent character of the victim is material in showing the existence of reasonable belief of imminent danger in the mind of the accused and a justifiable conviction that a prompt defensive action is necessary (G.R. No. 139070, May 29, 2002).

In civil cases, evidence of the moral character of a party is admissible only when pertinent to the issue of character involved in the case (Section 54 (b), Rule 130, Rules on Evidence). This means that the party raising the issue of character must raise it in the pleading, such as in a complaint or answer. Examples include deceitful or fraudulent character in misappropriation of company funds or property, or unchaste character in legal separation on the grounds of adultery.

The evidence of character is proven by testimony regarding reputation or testimony in the form of an opinion (Section 54 (c), Rule 130, Rules on Evidence). While the real character of a person is not determined by his reputation, it can be used to prove character evidence in court.

(Manila Standard, March 11, 2022)