Character is a general quality usually attributed to a person. Under criminal law, character evidence cannot be used in court to show that the person acted on a particular occasion in conformity with a particular character trait. For example, a defendant's tendency to over exaggerate or lie to friends and family cannot be used as evidence that he defrauded others out of money or property.
While character evidence generally isn't allowed during the trial phase to show a person acted a certain way, it's frequently introduced during the sentencing stage. Prosecutors often introduce evidence of past misconduct or personality flaws to show that a convicted defendant merits a greater sentence. Alternatively, defense attorneys often introduce character witnesses during the sentencing phase to attest to defendants' positive traits and deeds.
Character vs. Habit
Habit, on the other hand, can be used as evidence in certain circumstances. A habit is a behavior that's specific, regular, and consistently repeated. It doesn't describe a personality or character trait of the person, but something he or she does habitually, or regularly. For instance, if the defendant visited a certain coffee shop every morning for years, that fact could be used as evidence that he was probably at the coffee shop on the morning it was robbed. Occasionally, some character traits can be linked with a habit, so the distinction between the two can be hard to make at times.
Character Evidence in Civil Suits
In civil suits, similar to criminal cases, evidence that a person has a certain character trait generally cannot be used to prove that the person acted in conformity with that character trait on a particular occasion. Character evidence may be proved where it's an integral issue in a dispute, as in defamation cases, or where a party puts character in issue.