Law of Evidence in the United States of America – An Introduction

By | October 18, 2020
Law of Evidence in the United States of America

Federal Rules of Evidence applies as the law of evidence in the United States of America. It was adopted in the year of 1975.

I. Introduction: Law of Evidence in the United States of America

The law of evidence that applies in the United States of America is called the Federal Rules of Evidence. While there are many states in America which have either adopted these rules by varying them according to their local laws, there are some that had adopted these rules directly without much verification. Also, there are states which have revised their own law in such a way that it partially follows the Federal Rules of Evidence.

The United States Supreme Court made drafts of Federal Rules of Evidence and circulated them but at that time congress used its power and suspended the implementation of Federal Rules of Evidence until it can further study them. After Congress made a series of modifications and to the proposed rules, they became applicable finally when President Ford signed “An Act to Establish Rules of Evidence for Certain Courts and Proceedings”.

II. Important Amendments

Some of the most important amendments done by the congress to the draft federal rules of evidence were: –

1. Prior Inconsistent statement

Congress amended the proposed rule of 801(d)(1)(A). “The rule now requires that the prior inconsistent statement be given under oath subject to the penalty of perjury at a trial, hearing, or other proceedings, or in a deposition. The rule as adopted covers statements before a grand jury.”

2. Privileges

There were 13 rules in the draft Federal Rules of Evidence to guide the law relating to privileges. Congress struck all of them down and instead adopted rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. The rule specified that “except as otherwise provided by Act of Congress or by other federal rules, privileges in the federal courts would be governed by the principles of the common law as they may be interpreted by the courts of the United States in the light of reason and experience.”

The amendment meant that the entire purpose of the law relating to privileges in the Federal Rules of Evidence is being destroyed. Therefore, the lawyers who practice in the federal courts will have to look carefully to different case laws that emerge from time to time to analyse the contours of the available privileges in the particular place where their case is being heard.

3. Impeachment by conviction

Rule 609(a) was also amended by congress. This rule says when a party can use discretion to impeach a witness. Congress reformed most part of the rule to specify when a court could exercise discretion to admit evidence of a conviction which was a felony, but that the court must admit the prior conviction if the crime was one involving “dishonesty or false statement”.

III. Purpose

The Federal Rules of Evidence was drafted to regulate the evidence that the jury may use to reach the verdict. Historically it has been seen that the rules of evidence reflected a marked distrust of jurors. The Federal Rules of Evidence seeks to eliminate this distrust.

Rule 102 of the Federal Rules of Evidence states the purpose of the rules of evidence. It states that,

“These rules should be construed so as to administer every proceeding fairly, eliminate unjustifiable expense and delay, and promote the development of evidence law, to the end of ascertaining the truth and securing a just determination.”[1]

The Federal Rules of Evidence revolves around a few basic ideas such as relevance, unfair surprise, efficiency, reliability, and overall fairness of the adversary process. The Federal Rules of Evidence grants the trial judge’s broad discretion in the matter of admission of evidence in the face of competing arguments from the parties. This is expected to ensure that the jury has got a lot of broad spectrum of evidence in front of him but not those evidence that are repetitive, inflammatory, or unnecessarily confusing.

IV. Structure of the Law of Evidence in the United States 

There are 67 individually numbered rules that are divided among 11 articles which are: –

  1. General Provisions
  2. Judicial Notice
  3. Presumptions in Civil Actions and Proceedings
  4. Relevancy and Its Limits
  5. Privileges
  6. Witnesses
  7. Opinions and Expert Testimony
  8. Hearsay
  9. Authentication and Identification
  10. Contents of Writings, Recordings, and Photographs
  11. Miscellaneous Rules

The Rules contains some very common concepts which are referred to as rule number. For example, in rule 403 contains a very common and important concept which is the balancing of relevance against other competing interests. The rule states that

“The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”

Another example is the rule 404, specifically 404(b) where we see that the rules may forbid certain testimonies from being admissible in the court of law for one purpose, while the same may be admissible in the court for another purpose. Rule 404(b)(1) prohibits the use of prior acts or crimes of the defendant to show that he acted in accordance with those prior acts and crimes. Rule 404(b) pertains to specific instances of a person’s conduct.

Rule 404(b)(1) states that, “Prohibited Uses- Evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.”

While rule 404(b)(2) states that, “Permitted Uses; Notice in a Criminal Case. This evidence may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.”[2]

Thus, we see that in 404(b)(1) the Evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible while in the case of 404(b)(2) it is admissible for two different purposes.

As said earlier the law relating to privileges remained based on the federal common law under the rules of the federal law of evidence rather than being a subject of judicial interpretation of the text of the rule.

The advisory committee draft of the rules contained nine evidentiary privileges which are: –

  1. Required reports,
  2. Attorney-client,
  3. Psychotherapist-patient,
  4. Husband-wife,
  5. Communications to clergymen,
  6. Political vote,
  7. Trade secrets,
  8. Official secrets, and
  9. Identity of informer

The congress replaced the proposed rules of privileges when the debate over them threatened to delay the adoption of the rules. The congress replaced the proposed privileges with rule 501.[3]

The scope of the privileges under the Rules is subject to the federal common law except in cases where the state law supplies the rule to be applied. The supreme court is thus having the ultimate responsibility to determine which privileges exist and which don’t.

After the enactment of the Federal Rules of Evidence, the United States Supreme Court had expressly agreed to adopt a privilege in the case of Jaffee v. Redmond[4] and expressly declined to adopt a rule of privilege in the case of the University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC[5].

V. Restyling

On 1st December 2011, the restyled Federal Rules of Evidence became effective. The effort to restyle the Federal Rules of Evidence and other federal court rules such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure had started from the early 2000s.

According to the statement of the advisory committee who has restyled the rules of the federal laws said that the restyling was not intended to make substantive changes in the evidentiary rules but it was rather intended to make it purely stylistic. The United States Supreme Court approved the restyled FEDERAL RULES OF EVIDENCE on 26th April 2011 and under the Rules Enabling Act it came to effect.

[1] Schaffzin, Katharine. “Is Evidence Obsolete?” The Review of Litigation, vol. 36, no. 3, University of Texas, Austin, School of Law Publications, Inc., Jan. 2017, p. 529.

[2] Rule 404. Character Evidence; Crimes or Other Acts, Available Here

[3] Federal Rules of Evidence explained. Available Here

[4]  518 U.S. 1 (1996)

[5] 493 U.S. 182 (1990)

  1. Law of Evidence

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