How Effective are Character Reference Letters in a Criminal Case?

I am frequently asked by my clients if they should provide character reference letters to the Court or Judge hearing the case.  My response depends on the nature of the allegations and the individual background of the accused.  The Court oftentimes only sees the bad aspects of a person’s life as contained in the police reports, probation report and any other evidence submitted by the District Attorney.  With this in mind, in most cases, having the client’s friends, family, clergy, employers, neighbors, etc write letters that can attest to a client’s background is a good idea.  But with anything the decision has its negatives.

In any case where character letters are presented, the DA also gets to see the letters.  In some cases, the DA may send out an investigator to interview the person who prepared the letter.  At this interview, the police detective or investigator may share details of the current case and ask the author:  Did you know the person is accused of this or that?  Sometimes the accusations are enough to scare an author of a character letter from participating in the case further and could prejudice the client’s standing in his community.

In some cases, the accused may have other criminal offenses in his background that could be exposed to the letter writer to see if his or her opinion of the defendant would change if they knew about that case.  You can see how character letters may sometimes be a good idea, but sometimes they can cause more harm than good.  As a final note, Judges are often moved very little by a character letter, in most cases the letter is hearsay and the Judge has no way to determine the accuracy or reliability of the document.  Check with your attorney first before you or anyone involved in the case sends any letter to the Court or the DA.

Matthew Ruff is a Criminal Defense Attorney and DUI Lawyer in Torrance who has tried thousands of cases over the last 20 years.  His practice focuses on serious criminal and DUI cases in Southern California.

About thetorranceattorney

Matthew Ruff is a Torrance criminal defense attorney located near the 405 freeway on Crenshaw Blvd. Focusing on DUI and serious criminal cases for over twenty five years. In addition to criminal cases, Matthew also defends clients at the DMV regarding license suspension hearings stemming from drunk driving arrests.
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2 Responses to How Effective are Character Reference Letters in a Criminal Case?

  1. Sandy says:

    It’s foolish to write a character reference for court when you do not even know what the relevant charge is. Anyone writing a reference must clearly state this in the letter, otherwise the writing is likely not going to be relevant and won’t make sense to the judge.

  2. Richard Johnson says:

    If you are facing a criminal charge be ready to help your lawyer explain who you are, and why this charge you are facing shouldn’t define you. Obviously this works better for victimless crimes than, say, of assault with a deadly weapon, but the idea is the same. If your defense lawyers can humanize you with the ADA, and take you from being a “criminal defendant” to a human being, then you have made a lot of progress.

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