- It must be relevant. In legal terms relevance means that the character evidence makes a fact of consequence in the case more or less probable than would otherwise be the case. For other kinds of evidence the question of relevance may be straightforward. For example, in a drunk driving case the individual’s blood alcohol content near the time of the accident is clearly relevant. But character isn’t always a direct issue in a case. The defendant’s character may come into play if there are questions about his or her honesty or other traits.
- It must not be unfairly prejudicial. The character evidence’s informational value should not be substantially outweighed by the likelihood that the trier of fact (a judge or jury) will be swayed against the defendant for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts of the case. For example, if the defendant was convicted of a serious drug offense (say, selling cocaine to minors) 30 years ago but the current case involves a car accident with no connection to drug use or sales, the fact of the old conviction may not just be irrelevant, it may also be unfairly prejudicial.
- It cannot be offered solely to prove that the defendant acted in a certain way. In a sense, this rule is another way of getting at the rules of relevance and fairness. Proving that someone has a general habit of drinking too much can’t be used to prove that the person was drunk on a specific occasion. Showing that a person has a history of domestic violence does not prove that he or she is still committing violent acts. But if the defendant tries to argue that he doesn’t drink, or that she wouldn’t hurt a fly, these character elements can become important. Note that the defendant may need to open the door for the plaintiff to use this sort of evidence. A smart attorney will avoid making this kind of rudimentary mistake.
In personal injury lawsuits the defendant’s character can sometimes become an important piece of a plaintiff’s case. The defendant’s character could involve his or her propensity to tell the truth, behave lawfully, act violently, and so on. But character evidence isn’t always relevant to the core issue of a personal liability case: whether or not the defendant is legally responsible for compensating the plaintiff for costs related to the injury. Understanding when a defendant’s character can be used at trial requires consideration of Nevada’s evidence rules. Nevada law limits when and how character evidence can be used in civil trials. Under NRS Chapter 48, a number of things must be true about character evidence before it can be used: