What is hearsay and why is it so important?

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What is hearsay and why is it so important? The word “hearsay” crept into our everyday vocabulary, but the legal definition is a little different from the ordinary meaning. The rules on hearsay vary from state to state, thus I will only provide generalizations on the concept.

The most common definition of hearsay is a statement made out of court that is offered in court as evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Perhaps, I can start by giving an example of hearsay. Assume for a moment that you tell your friend that the light was green as you drove over the intersection. Your friend will not be able to testify in court about the color of the traffic light. The friend might believe you, after all you are a trustworthy person. If it was somehow relevant, the friend will be able to testify to the fact that you told him about the light. But he will not be able to assert that color was in fact green.

telephone-gameYou may be wondering the significance of this evidentiary rule. The best way to think about the concept is by recalling a game we all used to play as children: telephone. One person whispers a sentence into another person’s ear. The whispering continues from person to person. By the end of the chain, the original statement is completely distorted. The game illustrates how unreliable the information becomes when spread from one person to another.

There are many exceptions to the rule, which vary from state to state. All of these exceptions share a common theme, which is reliability. A statement may be deemed reliable even though the statement is technically hearsay. Lawyers and the judge will have hearing without the presence of the jury to determine the context of the statement. The law recognized that there should be some exceptions to the rule. Basically, statements come into evidence if at the time the statement was made the speaker did not have the time to create a self serving lie.

For example, the law recognizes a dying declaration exception. People believe that a person on their death bed do not spread lies. The most common debate occurs over whether the speaker knew he/she was dying. This can be illustrated by the following. A person is shot and paramedics are trying to stop the bleeding. After several seconds, a paramedic yells out: “He is not going to make it!” Upon hearing this, with his last breath the victim says, “Bob shot me.” The statement “Bob shot me” will come into evidence. This only means that the statement will be heard by the jury. The jury does not necessarily need to believe that the statement.

California also recognizes a spontaneous statement exception. This means a declarant was explaining, qualifying, or describing an event or condition. This is a recognized exception because people believe that it is incredibly hard to make up a lie in the moment as something extraordinary is occurring.

Another common exception is a declaration against interest. The idea is that a person does not lie if the statement only cuts against the declarant. The California Rule state:

“Evidence of a statement by a declarant having sufficient knowledge of the subject is not made inadmissible by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness and the statement, when made, was so far contrary to the declarant’s pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far subjected him to the risk of civil or criminal liability, or so far tended to render invalid a claim by him against another, or created such a risk of making him an object of hatred, ridicule, or social disgrace in the community, that a reasonable man in his position would not have made the statement unless he believed it to be true.”

There are many other exceptions to the rule including statement for medical diagnosis, business records, public records, former testimony, contemporaneous statement, etc. All of these rules can be found in a California Rules of Evidence.

In short, the rule of hearsay has a gate keeper function. The judge decides what evidence is going to be heard by the jury by applying the hearsay rule and/or the appropriate exception. Then, the jury decides whether to believe the statement. Hopefully, you now have better understanding of the rule and its importance.

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