Understanding The Hearsay Rule
A lot of what lawyers do involves arguing about what can and can't be used as evidence in a case. If you're going to court anytime soon, it helps to understand some of the terminology and rules that are being used. By understanding more about the hearsay rule, and its exceptions, you'll be able to follow along better with the proceedings. This is what you should know.
What's the hearsay rule?
Hearsay is basically unsubstantiated or unverifiable evidence that comes to the court "secondhand." Instead of being what a witness saw or heard, it's what a witness was told by somebody else.
For example, if Adam takes a drink of whiskey while driving a car with Barbara as a passenger, Barbara could testify in court that she saw Adam drinking whiskey while driving before he caused a fatal traffic accident. However, if Barbara tells Corey what Adam did, Corey cannot testify about it, even if he believes it's the truth. His information only came through secondhand knowledge, or hearsay.
Why is this so important?
The hearsay rule generally prevents evidence of this sort from being used in court because otherwise it would have to allow people to testify to essentially nothing more than rumors that they've heard. Not only does this keep rumors out of the courtroom, it preserves a defendant's Constitutional right to confront his or her accuser in court and to subject that person to cross-examination.
That can be critical to anyone's defense. For example, if Barbara testifies that she watched Adam pull out the whiskey and drink it, Adam's attorney may be able to cast doubt on what Barbara actually saw. The attorney could make Barbara go into detail about how she knew that what Adam was drinking was actually whiskey. If it was in a flask, for example, she may have assumed it was whiskey because she knew that was Adam's drink of choice. She may never have actually asked. If Corey were allowed to testify to what Barbara told him, the defense attorney would be unable to determine the basis of Barbara's knowledge.
What are the exceptions?
Like many rules of law, the hearsay rule has a number of general exceptions, which include things like:
the original witness is unable to testify for an unavoidable reason, like death or physical illness
the original evidence was given at a previous trial and is already on record
the witness made a statement believing that he or she was about to die
the defendant somehow caused the original witness to be unable to attend the trial
the defense agrees to the validity of the evidence in advance
the statement was an excited utterance made in response to a shocking, sudden event
Sometimes secondhand information can get into court because of an important exception known as a "declaration against interest." This is a type of statement that is presumed to be true simply because it adversely affects the speaker in a serious way. For example, if Barbara told Corey that she helped Adam hide the whiskey bottle from the police after the accident, that might be considered a statement against interest, because that would make Barbara an accessory to a crime.
It is important to note that hearsay rules and exceptions are often hotly contested in court and the laws keep changing as a result. That can make hearsay an important issue both at a trial and on appeal in any case. For more information about this and other legal matters, talk to an attorney, such as Vandeventer Black LLP.