What Is Hearsay?
In the context of courtroom evidence, hearsay refers to out-of-court statements offered as evidence to prove “the truth of the matter asserted.” Simply put, hearsay is any evidence—including testimony and physical evidence such as documents—relating to a statement someone spoke or wrote outside the courtroom used as proof that whatever the person said is true.
What Is Not Hearsay?
Generally, testimony about what another person said out of court that doesn’t qualify as a “statement” of some fact is not hearsay and may be admissible, if relevant to a material issue in a court case. For example, exclamations such as “oh my goodness” are not statements of fact. No true or false values can be attributed to an exclamation, other than the implication that the declarant had a significant reaction to some event.
Furthermore, out-of-court statements of a party to the litigation, or a witness, may not qualify as inadmissible hearsay. For example, if a witness testified that they heard the defendant say “I killed Peter,” it generally does not constitute inadmissible hearsay because the defendant is present at the proceedings and can refute the witness if they take the stand.
Another example is if the witness testified that they heard Wanda say, “Daniel was too drunk to drive,” and Wanda is a trial witness. Because Wanda can be cross-examined in court, her out-of-court statements can be admitted to prove that Daniel was indeed too drunk to drive. As a defendant, Daniel can question Wanda about the circumstances that lead her to that conclusion and possible poke holes in her testimony at trial.
Is Hearsay Inadmissible?
According to American legal tradition, hearsay is inherently unreliable for the purpose of proving whatever was said by the person who made the statement—also known as “the declarant”—is true. As a result, hearsay statements are inadmissible to prove the truth of whatever the declarant stated.
For example, if a witness testified in court saying, “on Christmas eve, I met Jane at the bar where she told me she saw Dave point a gun at Victor and threatened to kill him” the witness’ testimony is considered hearsay.
Here, Jane’s statement was made out-of-court because the witness said she was at a bar on Christmas even when she spoke it. The witness testimony about what Jane said would be inadmissible hearsay if offered to prove that Dave pointed a gun at Victor and threatened to kill him.
When Is Hearsay Admissible?
Not all hearsay is inadmissible. For example, hearsay is admissible if it is not offered as evidence of whatever the speaker said. A statement can be valuable for something other than trying to prove the truth of what the speaker asserted. When someone’s emotional state of mind is at issue, an out-of-court statement can be useful to demonstrate its effect on the listener.
For example, the statement “William yelled ‘nobody likes you, Dave!” would be inadmissible to prove that nobody, in fact, liked Dave. However, if the statement was used to show that Dave became angry and attacked William, it might be admissible.
In other cases, courts have held that hearsay statements are admissible in certain situations indicating the inherent reliability.
The following is a list of exceptions to the hearsay rule:
- Certain confessions and admissions
- Declarations against the declarant’s interest
- Prior witness statements
- Spontaneous declarations
- Dying declarations
- Statements about the mental or physical state
- Business records
- Official records and writings
- Former testimony
- Certain proceedings
Both state laws and the Federal Rules of Evidence prohibit the admission of hearsay evidence in courtroom proceedings. Courts have held that the value of most hearsay evidence as a method of proving facts is outweighed by its prejudicial effect.
Importantly, the rules of evidence are almost exclusively used in judicial proceedings. Courts have held that the rule against admitting hearsay does not apply to grand jury proceedings to determine whether the government should pursue charges against the defendant. The Federal Rules of Evidence also do not apply to U.S. Congressional hearings and legislative deliberations, such as for impeachment inquiries in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Still Have Questions? Contact Hanson, Gorian, Bradford & Hanich
If you are looking for comprehensive legal advice about courtroom procedural rules for matters such as family law and criminal defense issues, you should reach out to an experienced attorney at Hanson, Gorian, Bradford & Hanich.
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