What Are the Rules of Admissibility in California Criminal Cases?
In any criminal trial, the prosecution bears the burden of proving the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This high standard of proof requires that all evidence presented to the jury be admissible under California law.
In other words, defense attorneys can object to evidence offered by the prosecution on the grounds that it is not legally admissible. If the court agrees with the objection, the jury will never see or hear that particular piece of evidence.
The State of California has a long list of "rules of admissibility" regarding what kinds of evidence may be introduced at a jury trial and what is not admissible. These are outlined in the California Evidence Code, which outlines rules about what kind of evidence can be introduced in a criminal jury trial.
The most important evidence rules include that all evidence introduced at trial must be relevant and reliable, who is competent to serve as a witness, how lawyers can question witnesses, hearsay evidence rule, evidentiary privileges, the rule against character evidence, undue prejudice, confuse the issues, and mislead the jury.
If the prosecutor violates any rule of evidence at your criminal trial, then your defense attorney might be able to get the evidence excluded by objecting to it.
If the judge decides not to strike the evidence, you might be able to appeal your criminal conviction because the evidence was improperly admitted.
Our California criminal defense lawyers will look at some of the most common admissibility rules invoked by defense attorneys.
The Relevance Rule – Evidence Code 210 EC
The primary evidence rules must be relevant to the issues being tried in court and provide proof that the evidence is reliable.
Evidence is only considered relevant if it tends to prove or disprove a material fact in the case. It is irrelevant if the evidence does not go to any material fact and cannot be introduced.
Relevant evidence is described as evidence that has any reasonable tendency to prove or disprove any fact that Is disputed and matters to the case's outcome.
The Hearsay Rule – Evidence Code 1200 EC
Hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. In other words, if someone testifies that "I heard John say that he saw the defendant commit the murder," that is hearsay.
Hearsay is generally not admissible under Evidence Code 1200 EC unless it falls into one of the numerous exceptions to the rule. The description of hearsay is straightforward. It's a statement made by someone other than the testifying witness that is offered to prove the truth.
The main reason for this rule of evidence in California criminal cases is that hearsay statements are unreliable enough to be accepted as valid evidence. Also, they are not made under oath and can't be subjected to cross-examination in court.
A classic hearsay scenario is when a witness testifies that a friend told them the defendant confessed to committing the crime. Still, the friend who allegedly told them does not provide any testimony.
The Character Evidence Rule - Evidence Code 1101 EC
The character evidence rule prohibits the introduction of evidence of a person's character or reputation to prove that they acted in accordance with that character on a particular occasion.
For example, suppose the defendant is on trial for murder? In that case, the prosecution cannot introduce evidence that the defendant has a history of violence to prove that they committed the murder.
This means the prosecution cannot use your past bad actions or crimes as proof that you committed this particular crime.
Also, they are not allowed to bring witnesses who express negative opinions regarding your character to prove your guilt.
However, it should be noted that a defendant's prior actions may be used to establish patterns of habit to show that the person may have been capable of committing the crime or to show possible motives for committing the crime.
The Authentication Rule – Evidence Code 1401 EC
Authentication proves that a particular piece of evidence is what it purports to be. For example, if the prosecution wants to introduce a letter into evidence, it must first prove that the letter was written by the person it purports to be from. If the prosecution cannot authenticate the document, it is inadmissible evidence.
Evidence Code 1401 EC says, “(a) writing authentication is required before receiving it in evidence. (b) authentication of writing is required before secondary evidence of its content can be received in evidence.”
Evidentiary Privilege Rules in California
Certain types of information are protected by law and cannot be disclosed in a criminal trial, even if relevant to the case.
This is because the interests protected by the privilege outweigh the probative value of the evidence. The most common evidentiary privileges invoked in criminal trials include:
- Psychotherapist-patient privilege under Evidence Code 1014 EC makes communications between therapist and patient inadmissible in court;
- Attorney-client privilege under Evidence Code 954 EC makes private communication between attorneys and their clients inadmissible in court;
- Spousal privilege under Evidence Code 970 and 971 EC means the courts cannot force spouses to testify against one another.
Your Constitutional Fifth-Amendment right not to give self-incriminating testimony also counts as an evidentiary privilege.
Exclusions of Evidence Deemed Confusing, Misleading, or Prejudicial
Under Evidence Code 352 EC, even if the evidence is relevant and admissible, a judge may exclude it if they believe it would be confusing or misleading or if its admission could unfairly prejudice the jury against the defendant.
While this admissibility rule is at the judge's discretion, an attorney may request that specific evidence be excluded by arguing why it is confusing, misleading, or prejudicial.
This statute says that the judge can decide to exclude any evidence if its value is substantially outweighed by the likelihood that it will create undue prejudice, mislead the jury, take up too much time at trial, or confuse the issues.
Witness Competency Rules
California law also lays out guidelines for who may be called a witness and their testimony's admissibility. Expressly, witnesses must be qualified according to the following:
- Under Evidence Code 701 EC, they must have the ability to understand and answer questions and to understand their duty, to tell the truth; and
- Under Evidence Code 702 EC, their testimony must be based on personal knowledge of the matter.
If the witnesses do not meet these criteria, they are considered incompetent as witnesses and may not testify at trial.
In addition, a witness called an "expert witness" must have special knowledge, experience, skills, or education pertaining to some aspect of the case as described under Evidence Code 720 EC.
Also, they may only offer their opinion based on their special area of knowledge as it may help the jury as described under Evidence Code 801 EC.
It's common in criminal trials in California for one side to challenge the credibility of the witnesses for the other side. This is called “impeachment of witnesses,” and particular evidence rules govern it.
Objecting to Violations of California Evidence Rules
If the prosecution at your trial introduces evidence that violates any of the California evidence rules, then your defense lawyer will typically “object” to the evidence.
Next, the judge can either sustain the objection and exclude the evidence from the trial or overrule the objection and allow the evidence.
Suppose the judge overrules the objection and the evidence is admitted? In that case, it might be possible to appeal your criminal conviction on the grounds that the evidence that was allowed should have been excluded, and since it was admitted, there has been a miscarriage of justice.
If your defense attorneys failed to object at trial, you can't appeal the case on this basis but may still be able to challenge the conviction for ineffective assistance of counsel.
Suppose you believe that evidence for your case was wrongly excluded at trial? In that case, you might be able to appeal your conviction on these grounds as long as it resulted in a miscarriage of justice and your defense attorney told the court of its relevance.
If you or a family member needs assistance with evidence in a California criminal jury trial, you should contact our office to review all the details.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-rated criminal law firm in Los Angeles County. You can contact us for an initial case consultation by calling (310) 328-3776 or using the contact form.