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An analysis of the admissibility of character evidence necessarily begins, then, with an examination of the purposes for which the evidence is proffered. If the evidence is introduced for the purpose of showing that a person acted in accordance with his character on a given occasion, then the evidence is inadmissible unless it falls within one of the exceptions noted in Fed. R. Evid. 404.
Shortly after midnight on June 17, 1974, appellant Reyes was run over by appellee-railroad's train as he lay on the railroad tracks near a crossing in Brownsville, Texas. Appellant brought the present diversity suit against the appellee, alleging negligence on the part of the appellee’s employees in failing to discover plaintiff as he lay on the tracks and stop the train in time to avoid the accident. The railroad answered by claiming that appellant, dressed in dark clothing that night, was not visible from the approaching train until it was too late. Moreover, appellee alleged that appellant was contributorily negligent because he was intoxicated on the night of the accident and passed out on the tracks before the train arrived. During trial, appellee presented evidence of appellant’s prior misdemeanor convictions for public intoxication. In response, appellant made a motion in limine to exclude the aforementioned evidence. The appellee opposed the motion, arguing that the convictions were admissible to show that appellant was intoxicated on the night of the accident. The district court agreed with appellee, and refused appellant’s motion. The jury then found appellant more negligent that appellee, thereby precluding the former from recovering against the latter under Texas law. Appellant challenged the decision.
Was the evidence of appellant’s prior misdemeanor convictions for public intoxication admissible as evidence?
On appeal the court reversed, holding that because the evidence of appellant's prior convictions was admitted for the sole purpose of showing that he had a character trait of drinking to excess and that he acted in conformity with his character by becoming intoxicated, the prior convictions were inadmissible character evidence under Fed. R. Evid. 404. In addition, four prior convictions for public intoxication spanning a three and one-half year period were of insufficient regularity to rise to the level of "habit" evidence and so were not admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 406.