A character reference is a statement from someone who knows you well and can say something generally good about you. Such a person will usually make a written statement, but may then be called to give evidence and be cross-examined on her or his statement.
If you are a defendant in a criminal trial, any statement saying that you are of 'good character' may be taken as evidence:
- that you may be not guilty, that is, being a person of good character, you are unlikely to have committed the crime; or
- that, if guilty, you deserve a lenient penalty, that is, it was a departure from your generally good character.
'Character' in the legal sense means your general good disposition, as opposed to any particular bad act you may have committed. For example, you may be a person of generally good character, but you did something wrong - or vice versa.
Bear in mind that only a defendant (or accused) can 'raise character'. However if you raise it, the prosecution is entitled to call evidence to refute your claim. If you don't raise character, the prosecution can't attack your character.
So, for example, if you are pleading not guilty to a charge of stealing a car, and you decide to call a character witness, you should make sure that there is no obvious evidence of bad character that the prosecution may call in reply. The most obvious example of bad character is previous convictions. If you had three previous convictions for car theft, it would not be sensible for you to 'raise character' at your trial for car theft. And if you do not raise character, the prosecution at trial is generally unable to refer to your previous convictions. This is a legal rule to prevent cases being decided on prejudice.
Character references are therefore of most value to those who have no prior convictions, or only minor or irrelevant convictions.
Any person who knows you fairly well can make a character reference, but they usually carry most weight if from a responsible person, such as an employer, teacher, priest, doctor or other professional. The court will want to know how long and how well this person knows you.
For example, in a statement your employer might say that you were a trusted worker, punctual and careful. A teacher might say you were a thoughtful and considerate person. In any case, the point is for the person to list your better points, in their own words.
Your referees should say that they are aware of the offence with which you have been charged.
Outstanding warrants (for example, for unpaid fines) maybe used against you at any time. They usually do not expire or have any time limit. Police can and do regularly run checks on people (for example, the drivers of cars) to see if there are outstanding warrants.
Interstate warrants are more complicated. If there is a first instance warrant (for your arrest) in another State, you may have to seek permission from a court to leave jail at the end of a jail sentence. This can be difficult, and it may be best not to raise the issue. States will generally extradite people from one State to another only for fairly serious charges. In other words, a State that wants you for marijuana smoking may be content to wait until you voluntarily return to that State, and come to police attention. This saves them the expense of an extradition.
Note that since 2010 there is a Commonwealth law to permit the enforcement of unpaid interstate fines.