Understanding Evidence: The Hearsay Rule

Courtroom dramas are immensely popular, with several networks running long marathons of viewer favorites during the holiday weeks. While the courtroom scenes are often peppered with legal catchphrases and terms of art, they do not always provide a fully-accurate representation of courtroom rules and procedures. As a Panama City plaintiff's law firm, it is our job to help clients navigate the reality of Florida's legal system. We believe this job includes educating our clients so they can better understand all aspects of their case. One area that can be particularly confusing is the hearsay rule, a principle that can often trip up new law students as well as television producers. This post will provide a brief introduction to the hearsay rule that will help readers begin to understand the complex principles of evidence that govern trials in our state.

An Overview of the Exclusionary Rule

State and federal courtrooms are governed by codes of evidence, separate though often similar sets of rules that govern the evidence the court can consider when deciding a case. If evidence is not admissible, courts cannot consider it, no matter how compelling. The basic hearsay rule, Section 90.801 in the Florida Evidence Code, states that courts cannot rely on out-of-court, unsworn statements (written or spoken) as proof of the matter asserted in the statement. Hearsay statements are considered unreliable because they are not made under oath, the opposing side cannot question the author/speaker (known as the "declarant"), and the judge/jury cannot watch the author to determine whether or not the statements are believable. As such, hearsay is excluded from evidence.

"Truth of the Matter Asserted"

By definition, only evidence offered "for the truth of the matter asserted" is deemed hearsay and excluded by the rule. Suppose a witness at the scene of an accident exclaimed "He just drove through a red light!" That statement cannot be used as proof that the person referenced did indeed drive through the red light. However, the statement can be admitted for other purposes.

Permissible reasons for admitting an out-of-court statement include: as proof of the speaker's state of mind (ex. someone who yelled "I am Superman" before darting into traffic may not have been sane); as evidence of the time, place, and presence of the speaker (ex. "I just got off a double shift" may show the time of an incident, but not that the person actually just left work); or as evidence of the impact a statement had on the listener (ex. a statement "He just stole my bag!" could explain why the listener pursued and tackled someone, but is not proof that person referenced took the item). Additionally, words that have a legal effect, such as a term in a contract, are not considered hearsay.

Exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule

Even if a statement qualifies as hearsay, it may qualify under an exception to the hearsay rule and therefore be admitted for the matter asserted therein. There are two main categories of exceptions: those that apply only if the declarant is unavailable to testify, and those that apply regardless of the speaker's availability. The precise list of exceptions is different in state and federal courts.

In Florida state courts, hearsay exceptions that apply only when the declarant is unavailable include (under 90.804) statements against the speaker's interests, testimony from another hearing, and statements made when the speaker believes s/he is dying. Exceptions that apply regardless of whether the declarant is available to testify at the hearing include (via Florida Evidence Rule 803) statements made in order to get medical treatment/diagnoses, statements about someone's reputation for character, and entries in regularly-kept business record.

The Federal Rules contain a "catchall" or "residual" exception. Under this rule, federal courts may admit any hearsay statement if there is sufficient reason to believe it is trustworthy, it is the best evidence on the point, and admitting the statement serves the interest of justice. Florida courts do not have this rule. However, it is still useful for insight into the principles behind the hearsay rule and its exceptions - Hearsay is barred because it is considered unreliable and exceptions are made when there is special reason to believe the evidence is trustworthy (ex. someone would probably speak accurately when seeking medical help).

Two specific exceptions included in Florida's evidentiary rules that are not part of the federal rules are statements of child victims and statements of an elderly or disabled person in certain abuse matters. To qualify for these exceptions, the evidence must meet specific requirements. The latter is especially important to our elder care practice. Federal courts might use the catchall exception to allow similar evidence.

Telling a Story

As a Panama City civil claims lawyer, Attorney Pittman uses the rules of evidence to tell our clients' story in court. At the same time, he uses the rules to prevent the opposing side from submitting unreliable evidence. Even when cases settle, the settlements are often shaped by the existence and admissibility of evidence. Procedural rules may not make headline news, but they are a critical part of the legal world, and we promise to take the time to help our clients understand how these rules apply to their unique case.

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