Old Chief v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Western District Court of New York

DOCKET NO.: 95-6556
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 519 US 172 (1997)
ARGUED: Oct 16, 1996
DECIDED: Jan 07, 1997

Daniel Donovan - Montana, argued the cause for the petitioner
Miguel A. Estrada - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Johnny Lynn Old Chief was involved in a disturbance involving gunfire. Subsequently, Old Chief was charged with violating federal law, 18 U. S. C. Section(s) 922(g)(1), which prohibits possession of a firearm by anyone with a prior felony conviction. The earlier crime that was charged in the indictment against Old Chief was assault causing serious bodily injury. Old Chief moved for an order requiring the Government to refrain from revealing the name and nature of his prior assault conviction, which, he argued, would unfairly tax the jury's capacity to hold the Government to its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, in violation of Federal Rules of Evidence, on current charges of assault, possession, and violence with a firearm. Old Chief offered to stipulate, or concede, to the fact of the prior conviction without releasing its name or nature. The Government refused to join the stipulation. The Government argued it had the right to present its own evidence of the prior conviction. The District Court ruled in favor of the Government. 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.


Does a District Court have the authority to reject a defendant's offer to conceded a prior conviction and admit the prosecution's presentation of it when the name or nature of the conviction 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?

Media for Old Chief v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 16, 1996 in Old Chief v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 07, 1997 in Old Chief v. United States

David H. Souter:

The opinion of the Court in No. 95-6556, Old Chief against the United States will be announced by Justice Souter.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The petitioner, Johnny Lynn Old Chief was charged in Federal District Court with being a felony in possession of a firearm.

At trial, Old Chief offered to concede his felon status and on that basis, he sought to prevent the government from entering into evidence the record of his prior conviction for the assault resulting in serious bodily injury.

He claimed that telling the jury the name and nature of his prior offense would unfairly prejudice him within the meaning of Federal Rule of Evidence 403, but the District Court ruled that the government was entitled to prove every element of the offense with its own chosen evidence and was not required to accept Old Chief’s concession in its place.

Old Chief was convicted and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

In the opinion filed with the Clerk of Court today, we reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and hold that the District Court has used its discretion when it sprung Old Chief’s offer to provide the government with virtually conclusive evidence of his felony status and instead permitted the government to proceed with evidence of the name and nature of Old Chief’s prior felony.

We agree with the general rule that a criminal defendant cannot interfere with the government’s presentation of its evidence by conceding some elements if not others but we find that the reason for that rule does not apply to prove of legal status resulting from a previous unrelated adjudication.

Justice O’Connor has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Thomas join.