Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172 (1997)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 95-6556. Argued October 16, 1996—Decided January 7, 1997

After a fracas involving at least one gunshot, petitioner, Old Chief, was charged with, inter alia, violating 18 U. S. C. 922(g)(1), which prohibits possession of a firearm by anyone with a prior felony conviction. He offered to stipulate to 922(g)(1)'s prior-conviction element, arguing that his offer rendered evidence of the name and nature of his prior offense— assault causing serious bodily injury—inadmissible because its "probative value [was] substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice . . . ," Fed. Rule Evid. 403. The Government refused to join the stipulation, however, insisting on its right to present its own evidence of the prior conviction, and the District Court agreed. At trial, the Government introduced the judgment record for the prior conviction, and a jury convicted Old Chief. In affirming the conviction, the Court of Appeals found that the Government was entitled to introduce probative evidence to prove the prior offense regardless of the stipulation offer.

Held: A district court abuses its discretion under Rule 403 if it spurns a defendant's offer to concede a prior judgment and admits the full judgment record over the defendant's objection, when the name or nature of the prior offense raises the risk of a verdict tainted by improper considerations, and when the purpose of the evidence is solely to prove the element of prior conviction. Pp. 178-192. (a) Contrary to Old Chief's position, the name of his prior offense as contained in the official record is relevant to the prior-conviction element. That record made his 922(g)(1) status "more probable . . . than it [would have been] without the evidence," Fed. Rule Evid. 401; and the availability of alternative proofs, such as his admission, did not affect its evidentiary relevance, see Advisory Committee's Notes on Fed. Rule Evid. 401, 28 U. S. C. App., p. 859. Pp. 178-179. (b) As to a criminal defendant, Rule 403's term "unfair prejudice" speaks to the capacity of some concededly relevant evidence to lure the factfinder into declaring guilt on an improper basis rather than on proof specific to the offense charged. Such improper grounds certainly include generalizing from a past bad act that a defendant is by propensity the probable perpetrator of the current crime. Thus, Rule 403 requires that the relative probative value of prior-conviction evidence be bal-

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