Federal Rules of Evidence/Relevancy

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Article IV of the Federal Rules of Evidence deals with relevancy—the first consideration in determining the admissibility of evidence.

Rule 401. Definition of "Relevant Evidence"[edit]

"Relevant evidence" means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

Relevancy is the notion that every piece of evidence admitted in the courtroom must be "tied" to the case somehow. Any probative value will make evidence relevant. Note that relevancy is different from credibility. If evidence is merely unbelievable, the presumption is that it should be admissible, and the jury should decide whether or not to believe it.

Relevant evidence need not be probative of the core issues of the case, or of a disputed issue. Matters "of consequence" can include the background of parties and witnesses, or any other matter which weighs for or against the case of one of the parties.

Rule 402. Relevant Evidence Generally Admissible; Irrelevant Evidence Inadmissible[edit]

All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, by Act of Congress, by these rules, or by other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority. Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.

Rule 402 makes relevancy the first consideration when objecting to evidence. If evidence cannot be tied to a matter of consequence, it cannot be admitted at all, regardless of whatever rules might indicate its validity. If evidence is relevant, then the other rules of evidence come into play.

Rule 403. Exclusion of Relevant Evidence on Grounds of Prejudice, Confusion, or Waste of Time[edit]

Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

Rule 403 provides a "balancing test" for excluding relevant evidence. The balancing test is strongly weighted toward admission; there must be a danger of unfair prejudice that substantially outweighs the probative value of the evidence. "Unfair prejudice" is not the same thing as "prejudice"—almost all relevant evidence is prejudicial to one side or the other. Proving unfair prejudice is often difficult; proving the balance is even moreso.

Ordinarily, a 403 objection is the last objection a lawyer makes when seeking to exclude evidence. Besides the burden of tipping the balance, another key problem is that a 403 objection concedes the relevance of the evidence.

Rule 404. Character Evidence Not Admissible To Prove Conduct; Exceptions; Other Crimes[edit]

Rule 404(a). Character evidence generally[edit]

Evidence of a person's character or a trait of character is not admissible for the purpose of proving action in conformity therewith on a particular occasion, except:
(1) Character of accused - Evidence of a pertinent trait of character offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the same, or if evidence of a trait of character of the alleged victim of the crime is offered by an accused and admitted under Rule 404 (a)(2), evidence of the same trait of character of the accused offered by the prosecution;
(2) Character of alleged victim - Evidence of a pertinent trait of character of the alleged victim of the crime offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the same, or evidence of a character trait of peacefulness of the alleged victim offered by the prosecution in a homicide case to rebut evidence that the alleged victim was the first aggressor;
(3) Character of witness - Evidence of the character of a witness, as provided in rules 607, 608, and 609.

Rule 404(b). Other crimes, wrongs, or acts[edit]

Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident, provided that upon request by the accused, the prosecution in a criminal case shall provide reasonable notice in advance of trial, or during trial if the court excuses pretrial notice on good cause shown, of the general nature of any such evidence it intends to introduce at trial.

Rule 405. Methods of Proving Character[edit]

Rule 405(a). Reputation or opinion[edit]

In all cases in which evidence of character or a trait of character of a person is admissible, proof may be made by testimony as to reputation or by testimony in the form of an opinion. On cross-examination, inquiry is allowable into relevant specific instances of conduct.

Rule 405(b). Specific instances of conduct[edit]

In cases in which character or a trait of character of a person is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, proof may also be made of specific instances of that person's conduct.

Rule 406. Habit; Routine Practice[edit]

Evidence of the habit of a person or of the routine practice of an organization, whether corroborated or not and regardless of the presence of eyewitnesses, is relevant to prove that the conduct of the person or organization on a particular occasion was in conformity with the habit or routine practice.

This is a cleverly worded rule, in the sense that it’s unique for a reason. It states that habit evidence is relevant for a particular reason, to prove conformity on a particular occasion. Normally, the rules specify a theory of relevance for which the evidence can or cannot be admitted; this rule does neither. By specifying that the evidence is relevant for a particular purpose, the rule does not preclude exclusion by any other rule. By not stating that it is admissible for that purpose, the rule does not preclude admission for other purposes by the principle of expressio unius est exclusio alterius. The rule's application and effect depends on how ‘habit’ is defined. Habit is difficult to distinguish from character. Usually, the trait must be proven to be a conditioned response and not otherwise inadmissible under rule 404(a). A habit is the person’s regular practice of meeting a particular kind of situation with a specific type of conduct, such as the habit of going down a certain stairway two stairs at a time; a habit action is semi-automatic. Still, it can be difficult to separate from character. Routine practice, as it relates to more commercial and mechanical actions, does not pose the same problem. Both are highly persuasive evidence. To be properly admitted, it must directly relate or be connected to the conduct which it purports to prove. At common law, habit evidence wasn’t admissible unless corroborated and there were eye witnesses. Obviously, the federal rule has changed this.

Rule 407. Subsequent Remedial Measures[edit]

When, after an injury or harm allegedly caused by an event, measures are taken that, if taken previously, would have made the injury or harm less likely to occur, evidence of the subsequent measures is not admissible to prove negligence, culpable conduct, a defect in a product, a defect in a product's design, or a need for a warning or instruction. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of subsequent measures when offered for another purpose, such as proving ownership, control, or feasibility of precautionary measures, if controverted, or impeachment.

This rule is constructed along familiar lines: it excludes evidence (the undertaking of subsequent remedial measures) when it is presented under specified theories of relevance. However, the rule only bars subsequent remedial measures that would have prevented the harm that is the subject of the litigation. The rule incorporates language that clearly indicates the arena of products liability; the reasoning behind this is parallel to the foundational policy behind the rule: the judiciary does not want to dissuade manufacturers, or anyone else, from taking remedial measures that might prevent future harm. However, some courts allow it in products liability cases on the theory that the greater risk of liability, if admitted, would trigger the change, which is somewhat of a circular argument as it is designed to encourage improvements.

The purposes for which the evidence may be admitted are limited by the requirement that the offer is made to prove a controverted fact. It can’t be offered to prove ownership or feasibility of precautionary measures unless the opponent has denied ownership or that taking remedial measures was possible.

The rule does not bar evidence that measures have not been taken, but this might not be relevant unless the defense is lack of knowledge of the dangerous condition or product. Evidence of subsequent remedial measures made by someone other than the instant defendant, like a peer corporation, is not excluded by the rule. Firing an employee is a widely considered a subsequent remedial measure.

Rule 408. Compromise and Offers to Compromise[edit]

(a) Prohibited uses.--Evidence of the following is not admissible on behalf of any party, when offered to prove liability for, invalidity of, or amount of a claim that was disputed as to validity or amount, or to impeach through a prior inconsistent statement or contradiction:

(1) furnishing or offering or promising to furnish--or accepting or offering or promising to accept--a valuable consideration in compromising or attempting to compromise the claim; and

(2) conduct or statements made in compromise negotiations regarding the claim, except when offered in a criminal case and the negotiations related to a claim by a public office or agency in the exercise of regulatory, investigative, or enforcement authority.

(b) Permitted uses.--This rule does not require exclusion if the evidence is offered for purposes not prohibited by subdivision (a). Examples of permissible purposes include proving a witness's bias or prejudice; negating a contention of undue delay; and proving an effort to obstruct a criminal investigation or prosecution.

Rule 409. Payment of Medical and Similar Expenses[edit]

Evidence of furnishing or offering or promising to pay medical, hospital, or similar expenses occasioned by an injury is not admissible to prove liability for the injury.

Rule 410. Inadmissibility of Pleas, Plea Discussions, and Related Statements[edit]

Except as otherwise provided in this rule, evidence of the following is not, in any civil or criminal proceeding, admissible against the defendant who made the plea or was a participant in the plea discussions:
(1) a plea of guilty which was later withdrawn;
(2) a plea of nolo contendere;
(3) any statement made in the course of any proceedings under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure or comparable state procedure regarding either of the foregoing pleas; or
(4) any statement made in the course of plea discussions with an attorney for the prosecuting authority which do not result in a plea of guilty or which result in a plea of guilty later withdrawn.
However, such a statement is admissible (i) in any proceeding wherein another statement made in the course of the same plea or plea discussions has been introduced and the statement ought in fairness be considered contemporaneously with it, or (ii) in a criminal proceeding for perjury or false statement if the statement was made by the defendant under oath, on the record and in the presence of counsel.

Rule 411. Liability Insurance[edit]

Evidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether the person acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of insurance against liability when offered for another purpose, such as proof of agency, ownership, or control, or bias or prejudice of a witness.

Rule 412. Sex Offense Cases; Relevance of Victim's Past Behavior or Alleged Sexual Predisposition[edit]

(a) Evidence generally inadmissible. The following evidence is not admissible in any civil or criminal proceeding involving alleged sexual misconduct except as provided in subdivisions (b) and (c):
(1) Evidence offered to prove that any alleged victim engaged in other sexual behavior.
(2) Evidence offered to prove any alleged victim's sexual predisposition.
(b) Exceptions.
(1) In a criminal case, the following evidence is admissible, if otherwise admissible under these rules:
(A) evidence of specific instances of sexual behavior by the alleged victim offered to prove that a person other than the accused was the source of semen, injury, or other physical evidence;
(B) evidence of specific instances of sexual behavior by the alleged victim with respect to the person accused of the sexual misconduct offered by the accused to prove consent or by the prosecution; and
(C) evidence the exclusion of which would violate the constitutional rights of the defendant.
(2) In a civil case, evidence offered to prove the sexual behavior or sexual predisposition of any alleged victim is admissible if it is otherwise admissible under these rules and its probative value substantially outweighs the danger of harm to any victim and of unfair prejudice to any party. Evidence of an alleged victim's reputation is admissible only if it has been placed in controversy by the alleged victim.
(c) Procedure to determine admissibility.
(1) A party intending to offer evidence under subdivision (b) must—
(A) file a written motion at least 14 days before trial specifically describing the evidence and stating the purpose for which it is offered unless the court, for good cause requires a different time for filing or permits filing during trial; and
(B) serve the motion on all parties and notify the alleged victim or, when appropriate, the alleged victim's guardian or representative.
(2) Before admitting evidence under this rule the court must conduct a hearing in camera and afford the victim and parties a right to attend and be heard. The motion, related papers, and the record of the hearing must be sealed and remain under seal unless the court orders otherwise.

Rule 413. Evidence of Similar Crimes in Sexual Assault Cases[edit]

(a) In a criminal case in which the defendant is accused of an offense of sexual assault, evidence of the defendant's commission of another offense or offenses of sexual assault is admissible, and may be considered for its bearing on any matter to which it is relevant.
(b) In a case in which the Government intends to offer evidence under this rule, the attorney for the Government shall disclose the evidence to the defendant, including statements of witnesses or a summary of the substance of any testimony that is expected to be offered, at least fifteen days before the scheduled date of trial or at such later time as the court may allow for good cause.
(c) This rule shall not be construed to limit the admission or consideration of evidence under any other rule.
(d) For purposes of this rule and Rule 415, "offense of sexual assault" means a crime under Federal law or the law of a State (as defined in section 513 of title 18, United States Code) that involved--
(1) any conduct proscribed by chapter 109A of title 18, United States Code;
(2) contact, without consent, between any part of the defendant's body or an object and the genitals or anus of another person;
(3) contact, without consent, between the genitals or anus of the defendant and any part of another person's body;
(4) deriving sexual pleasure or gratification from the infliction of death, bodily injury, or physical pain on another person; or
(5) an attempt or conspiracy to engage in conduct described in paragraphs (1)-(4).

Rule 414. Evidence of Similar Crimes in Child Molestation Cases[edit]

(a) In a criminal case in which the defendant is accused of an offense of child molestation, evidence of the defendant's commission of another offense or offenses of child molestation is admissible, and may be considered for its bearing on any matter to which it is relevant.
(b) In a case in which the Government intends to offer evidence under this rule, the attorney for the Government shall disclose the evidence to the defendant, including statements of witnesses or a summary of the substance of any testimony that is expected to be offered, at least fifteen days before the scheduled date of trial or at such later time as the court may allow for good cause.
(c) This rule shall not be construed to limit the admission or consideration of evidence under any other rule.
(d) For purposes of this rule and Rule 415, "child" means a person below the age of fourteen, and "offense of child molestation" means a crime under Federal law or the law of a State (as defined in section 513 of title 18, United States Code) that involved--
(1) any conduct proscribed by chapter 109A of title 18, United States Code, that was committed in relation to a child;
(2) any conduct proscribed by chapter 110 of title 18, United States Code;
(3) contact between any part of the defendant's body or an object and the genitals or anus of a child;
(4) contact between the genitals or anus of the defendant and any part of the body of a child;
(5) deriving sexual pleasure or gratification from the infliction of death, bodily injury, or physical pain on a child; or
(6) an attempt or conspiracy to engage in conduct described in paragraphs (1)-(5).

Rule 415. Evidence of Similar Crimes in Civil Cases Concerning Sexual Assault and Child Molestation Cases[edit]

(a) In a civil case in which a claim for damages or other relief is predicated on a party's alleged commission of conduct constituting an offense of sexual assault or child molestation, evidence of that party's commission of another offense or offenses of sexual assault or child molestation is admissible and may be considered as provided in Rule 413 and Rule 414 of these rules.
(b) A party who intends to offer evidence under this Rule shall disclose the evidence to the party against whom it will be offered, including statements of witnesses or a summary of the substance of any testimony that is expected to be offered, at least fifteen days before the scheduled date of trial or at such later time as the court may allow for good cause.
(c) This rule shall not be construed to limit the admission or consideration of evidence under any other rule.