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Law School Case Brief

Michelson v. United States - 335 U.S. 469, 69 S. Ct. 213 (1948)


The price a defendant must pay for attempting to prove his good name is to throw open the entire subject which the law has kept closed for his benefit and to make himself vulnerable where the law otherwise shields him. The prosecution may pursue the inquiry with contradictory witnesses to show that damaging rumors, for it is not the man that he is, but the name that he has which is put in issue. Another hazard is that his own witness is subject to cross-examination as to the contents and extent of the hearsay on which he bases his conclusions, and he may be required to disclose rumors and reports that are current even if they do not affect his own conclusion. 


Michelson was convicted of bribing a federal revenue agent. At trial on cross-examination of his character witnesses, the prosecutor asked the witnesses if they had ever heard that Michelson was previously arrested for receiving stolen goods. Michelson claimed that this question constituted reversible error. The appellate court affirmed and held that the question was permissible but pointed out that the practice had been severely criticized. Illinois  rule provided that such questions were improper unless they related to offenses similar to those for which the defendant was on trial.


Was the cross-examination question asked on Michelson’s character witness proper?




Upon writ of certiorari, the Court affirmed the appellate court decision and thereby rejected the appellate court's invitation to adopt the Illinois rule. The Court held that the cross-examination question was proper because reports of defendant's arrest for receiving stolen goods, if admitted, would tend to weaken defendant's assertion that he was known as an honest and law-abiding citizen. The Court found that Michelson had no valid complaint at the latitude which existing law allowed to the prosecution to meet by cross-examination an issue voluntarily tendered by the defense.

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