Old Chief v. United States
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
519 U.S. 172
Johnny Lynn Old Chief, Petitioner v. United StatesNo. 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 balanced against its prejudicial risk of misuse. A judge should balance these factors not only for the item in question but also for any actually available substitutes. If an alternative were found to have substantially the same or greater probative value but a lower danger of unfair prejudice, sound judicial discretion would discount the value of the item first offered and exclude it if its discounted probative value were substantially outweighed by unfairly prejudicial risk. Pp. 180-185.
(c) In dealing with the specific problem raised by § 922(g)(1) and its prior-conviction element, there can be no question that evidence of the name or nature of the prior offense generally carries a risk of unfair prejudice whenever the official record would be arresting enough to lure a juror into a sequence of bad-character reasoning. Old Chief sensibly worried about the prejudicial effect of his prior offense. His proffered admission also presented the District Court with alternative, relevant, admissible, and seemingly conclusive evidence of the prior conviction. Thus, while the name of the prior offense may have been technically relevant, it addressed no detail in the definition of the prior-conviction element that would not have been covered by the stipulation or admission. Pp. 185-186.
(d) Old Chief's offer supplied evidentiary value at least equivalent to what the Government's own evidence carried. The accepted rule that the prosecution is entitled to prove its case free from any defendant's option to stipulate the evidence away has virtually no application when the point at issue is a defendant's legal status. Here, the most the jury needed to know was that the conviction admitted fell within the class of crimes that Congress thought should bar a convict from possessing a gun. More obviously, the proof of status went to an element entirely outside the natural sequence of what Old Chief was charged with thinking and doing to commit the current offense. Since there was no cognizable difference between the evidentiary significance of the admission and the official record's legitimately probative component, and since the functions of the competing evidence were distinguishable only by the risk inherent in the one and wholly absent from the other, the only reasonable conclusion was that the risk of unfair prejudice substantially outweighed the conviction record's discounted probative value. Thus, it was an abuse of discretion to admit the conviction record when the defendant's admission was available. Pp. 186-192.
JUDGES: SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 192.