Pretty much any show or movie with a courtroom trial scene features the TV Trope of a lawyer objecting to something because it’s hearsay. But what is hearsay, exactly, and why can’t it be used in court? Lawyer Peter M. Liss explains California Evidence Code section 1200 (EC), including the exceptions that allow hearsay to become admissible.
What is Hearsay?
To some extent, hearsay is precisely what it sounds like —secondhand testimony from someone who says what they heard someone else say. In court, this means presenting evidence based on something someone other than the witness has said.
Why is Hearsay Inadmissible?
If the person who made a statement isn’t there to present it, then it can be nearly impossible to establish the credibility of the statement or to cross-examine the person who made it. Given that these are critical constitutional elements of the criminal justice system, hearsay isn’t allowed in most cases.
Unfortunately, hearsay is only inadmissible if an attorney objects to it, so only work with a skilled lawyer who is invested in your case and will remain vigilant during the trial so he can file objections whenever necessary.
What are Some Exceptions That Allow Hearsay to Become Admissible?
There are exceptions to every rule, and that includes rules about hearsay. You don’t need to know these for yourself as long as you have a good lawyer representing you who knows these exceptions by heart. Evidence Code 1200 (EC) allows hearsay to become admissible in many situations, and these are some of the most common exceptions:
- Excited utterances: In the criminal justice system, this exception allows for the admissibility of truly impulsive statements where the speaker underwent some event that would make them so excited they would not have the presence of mind to lie or give a false statement. For example, if someone set up a fake Go Fund Me for a friend and it received over $10,000 in donations in one day, the person who set it up might exclaim, “You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to set up a Go Fund Me without anyone verifying what you say. People are so gullible.” In this case, this statement could be admitted in a fraud case against the person who raised the money.
- Statements against interest. This exception essentially means someone confessed something that could adversely affect them. These statements are usually admissible because someone is generally not going to admit to something that could get them in trouble unless they actually did it. A good example would be a teacher who tells a friend they think a child may be getting abused, but they don’t want to report it because they’re not sure. Because teachers must report even potential abuse, this could be used as evidence against them if they are charged with failing to report abuse.
- Matter of record: Properly kept records can be admitted in court in most cases. Government records, including court documents (even a transcript including witness testimony from past cases), are almost always admissible. Privately kept records are usually admissible as long as a qualified witness is available to identify them and explain them. As long as the authenticity can be verified in some way, most records can be used in court.
- State of Mind: Hearsay is a statement made out of court that was admitted in court for the truth of the matter asserted. So, if the statement is admitted to explore the individual’s state of mind and not for the validity of the statement, then it can be properly admitted as evidence.
- Effect on the listener:
- Like the state of mind hearsay exception, statements may be admitted into the record if used to examine their effect on the listener. For example, if an attorney is trying to determine if someone feared for their life when they spoke with the defendant, it would be admissible for the witness to testify that the defendant told them, “I will kill you if you scream.”
If you have any questions about hearsay and Evidence Code 1200 (EC) or you want to make sure you have an attorney who will always protect you in court, please call criminal defense attorney Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.