What are the “rules of evidence”?

The rules of evidence govern what items can and cannot be admitted into court to build a case.  The federal courts use the Federal Rules of Evidence for both civil and criminal cases. 

Newly appointed federal district judges attend a week-long video orientation seminar. Below Judge James H. Hancock of the Northern District of Alabama updates his classic program on the federal rules of evidence. He discusses everything from judicial notice to relevance, hearsay and authentication.

The main point of his message; the rules of evidence are common sense rules embodying principles the judges already know or will easily understand once they review them. The update concentrates on rules 404b (other crimes – evidence), 609 (use of prior convictions on cross-examination), and 701-706 (use of expert witnesses).

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Judge Hancock mentions the Erie Doctrine several times, which mandates that a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction must apply state substantive law to resolve claims under state law.

States also have their own rules of evidence for cases heard in state court.  Most state’s rules are similar to the federal rules, with only minor changes made to accommodate particular state court needs.

In each trial heard before a court, either the judge or jury must determine, based on the evidence provided by each party, what the facts of the case are.  In civil cases like personal injury and other torts cases, the fact-finder must decide whether the plaintiff’s version of the facts is “more likely than not” true in order to find in favor of the plaintiff.  Otherwise, the defendant usually wins the case.

The rules of evidence govern what evidence the fact-finder can see, along with when, where, how, and why the fact-finder can see it.  In order to win any case in court, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the rules of evidence.  Evidence that is prohibited by the rules or that is brought into the trial in the wrong way may not be admitted, meaning that the party that brought the improper evidence will be barred from using it in his or her case.

In Missouri, the rules of evidence are codified under state statutes chapter 490.

Most rules of evidence consist of several dozen rules categorized into general subjects. One of the most-used rules is the rule that prohibits any evidence that would be more likely to prejudice the fact-finder against one party than to provide any useful information that would help the fact-finder reach a fair result.  Since nearly all pieces of evidence are likely to help one side and hurt the other, the judge must decide whether the “help” a piece of evidence gives to a case is larger than the “hurt” it might cause.  If it is more useful than prejudicial, the judge is more likely to allow the evidence to be shown to the jury.

Another commonly-used and widely known set of evidence rules are the rules governing hearsay.  Although hearsay rules can sound very confusing, their purpose is simple: they require the parties to build their cases on evidence they can bring into court, instead of basing it on what someone out of court may or may not have said.  The rule of evidence that governs hearsay has several exceptions, however, making it important to understand why the exceptions exist and how to use them when necessary.

Most attorneys keep the rules of evidence in mind when deciding how to present a case in court, remembering that certain pieces of evidence need special handling in order to be allowed into court.  Since attorneys cannot always control how evidence is handled, however, they and/or the parties are allowed to use objections to point out to the judge when an opposing party is violating a rule of evidence.

For instance, suppose that the injured plaintiff is testifying as a witness at trial.  She describes an accident in which the defendant hit her with his car while she was crossing the street.  Her attorney then asks, “when the defendant got out of his car, what did he say to you?”  The defendant’s attorney might object to this question because it asks for hearsay: specifically, it asks the plaintiff what she heard the defendant say on the street that day, instead of asking the defendant himself what he remembers saying.

Usually, the “action” in a trial will pause for a moment after an objection so that the attorneys can confer with the judge about whether or not the objected-to evidence can be admitted.  The judge then rules on the objection.  A “sustained” objection means that the judge has upheld the objection and the party must find another way to admit the evidence if he can.  An “overruled” objection is one that the judge has decided does not apply, and the party can go on presenting the objected-to evidence as he originally planned.  The way a judge rules on an objection applies only to the evidence the objection covered.  It is not a sign that the judge agrees more with one party or the other.

Some rules cover the methods the parties should use to handle evidence even before a trial begins.  For instance, parties may file motions in limine before a trial begins in order to work out between each other and the judge any questions about whether a particular piece of evidence should be admitted and for what purposes.

Article republished with permission from the Rottenstein Law Group, some minor edits have been made to the original article.

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