What Are the Federal Rules of Evidence?

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President Gerald Ford signed a law in 1975 establishing the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE). These rules were drafted with the intention of creating a uniform system across all federal courts as to the admission and exclusion of evidence in both civil and criminal trials. There were rules of evidence prior to 1975, but not all federal courts used the same rules or applied them evenly.

While the Federal Rules of Evidence apply only in federal court, many states base their own rules of evidence on the federal system. Knowing the federal rules can therefore give you a broad understanding of what rules you'll find in your state courts.

So what are the rules of evidence in federal court? Below is a list of each of the eleven sections of the Federal Rules of Evidence followed by a brief overview of each section.

1. General Provisions

FRE 101-106

2. Judicial Notice

FRE 201

3. Presumptions in Civil Actions and Proceedings

FRE 301 - 302

4. Relevancy and Its Limits

FRE 401-415

5. Privileges

FRE 501-502

6. Witnesses

FRE 601-615

7. Opinions and Expert Testimony

FRE 701-706

8. Hearsay

FRE 801-807

9. Authentication and Identification

FRE 901-903

10. Contents of Writings, Recordings, and Photographs

FRE 1001 -1008

11. Miscellaneous Rules

FRE 1101-1103

1. General Provisions

The general provisions section of the Federal Rules of Evidence provides information about the rules and how to object to admissibility or exclusion of evidence. It provides guidance to judges on preliminary questions and courtroom procedures.

2. Judicial Notice

There are certain types of documents or writings that the court may, at the request of a party or on the court's own volition, accept into evidence without the need to lay a foundation or authenticate. This is called judicial notice. The typical subject for judicial notice is either rulings on pleadings or legislative laws, but any fact that's generally known and can be accurately determined may be judicially noticed. For instance, the weather on a given day can be judicially noticed.

3. Presumptions in Civil Actions and Proceedings

Presumptions are a powerful tool that courts use to determine which party in a court case must prove a particular fact. The use of presumption applies in civil cases and stems from federal and state statutes. For instance, a state statute might say that the fact that an injury occurred is presumptive proof that a certain party was negligent. It would then be up to the presumed negligent party to prove that they were in fact not negligent.

4. Relevancy and Its Limits

No evidence can be admitted in a court proceeding unless it's relevant to one or more of the facts of the case. Evidence is relevant if it has a tendency to determine the validity of an important fact in the case. For instance, evidence that the defendant was seen at the scene of a fire moments before the fire broke out tends to show that the defendant may have started the fire.

However, just because evidence is relevant doesn't mean it will be admitted. There are provisions in the U.S. Constitution, federal laws and other rules that prevent the admission of certain kinds of evidence, regardless of its relevance. Further, the court may exclude relevant evidence if it's unduly prejudicial, would confuse the jury, is a waste of time, or some other reason that the court deems appropriate.

5. Privileges

The most well-known privilege is that of attorney-client, which holds that an attorney can't be compelled to reveal the confidential communications of their client in most circumstances. However, there are other privileges that have been defined by the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, and Supreme Court rules. Examples include communications of a husband and wife, psychotherapist-patient, and to a clergyman. If a statute provides for a right not to disclose information, then it's privileged and isn't required to be disclosed unless the privilege is waived.

6. Witnesses

The FRE contains requirements regarding who's a proper witness and what they may testify about. In order to testify in federal court, a witness must be competent and testify about only information for which they have personal knowledge. The rules also provide for challenging the competency and credibility of the witness.

7. Opinions and Expert Testimony

Generally witnesses may testify only about facts of which they have personal knowledge, but they may be allowed to offer a lay opinion if it's based on their observations and is helpful in understanding a fact at issue. For instance, a witness may be able to offer an opinion as to the distance they were from something they witnessed.

If the opinion to be offered for evidence isn't something that the witness personally observed, it will need to be presented by an expert witness with the knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education to be able to form such an opinion.

8. Hearsay

The FRE excludes the introduction of hearsay evidence unless one of the exceptions applies. Hearsay is essentially gossip being offered as proof that something is true. For instance, Sally wants to testify that Jack murdered Sue, because Sally heard Fred say that he saw Jack do it. The court will exclude Sally's testimony as hearsay. However, there are exclusions from the hearsay rule, including one that covers prior statements made by witnesses. If evidence falls into an exclusion, then then the hearsay rule does not apply.

There are also 24 exceptions to the prohibition of offering hearsay testimony, including a catch-all exception that allows for judicial discretion in determining if an exception should apply to a case. Some of the most common hearsay exceptions are for statements made while an event was occurring and statements contained in business records.

9. Authentication and Identification

Courts only want to admit items into evidence where there is a reasonable certainty that the item being offered is what it's claimed to be. Any item that one party wants to enter into evidence will require a witness or an expert to identify and to vouch for its authenticity in court.

10. Contents of Writings, Recordings, and Photographs

The FRE requires that documentary evidence such as writings, recordings, and photographs not only be authenticated by a witness or expert, but they must be original unless the rules provide for the use of a copy. There are exceptions if the original has been destroyed or if the copy isn't being provided to prove the content of the original record.

11. Miscellaneous Rules

The miscellaneous section states that these rules of evidence apply in all federal courts in both criminal and civil cases. The miscellaneous rules state the exceptions for claims of privilege do not apply in grand-jury proceedings and certain other miscellaneous proceedings. Finally, this section provides a federal judge discretion in admitting or excluding evidence independently from the FRE if the judge deems it necessary.

What Are the Rules of Evidence That Apply to Your Case? Ask an Attorney

Court cases are won or lost based on the evidence that the court admits or excludes. If you're facing a criminal trial it's important to present evidence that helps your case, but that evidence is useless if you can't follow the rules of evidence to have it considered by the court. That's why it's important to have an experienced attorney representing you. Get in touch with a criminal defense attorney near you today to learn more.

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