Someone once said that “objection” is the word you hear right before truth enters a courtroom. This may sound a little cynical, but there is a lot of truth to this statement. For lots of different reasons, courts will sometimes exclude evidence that could dramatically affect the outcome of a case. The excluded evidence may be absolutely true, but for policy reasons courts may prohibit the evidence or testimony if it violates the rules.
There are a variety of different rules that control the admissibility of evidence at a trial. The United States and Wyoming Constitutions can have a huge impact on the evidence at trial. Also, The Wyoming Rules of Evidence place important restrictions on the admissibility of evidence. These rules make the trial process a very controlled and structured exercise. A jury trial is about as spontaneous as a space shuttle launch. In evaluating a case a lawyer not only has to discover what the evidence is, but more importantly, he has to determine whether evidence is admissible. There can be a huge difference. If the best evidence you have is not admissible a jury will never see it.
The fight over admissibility of evidence actually begins long before the trial starts. In criminal cases, the primary way of challenging evidence is to determine if the evidence was obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. For example, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches, and if the court determines that the evidence was seized during an unreasonable search, the evidence may be suppressed. This means that the government cannot use the evidence at trial. This is called the “exclusionary rule.” So if the police search the defendant’s house and find 100 pounds of marijuana during an unreasonable search, the government cannot introduce the marijuana in evidence. The practical affect of this may result in a dismissal of the case. This may sound harsh, but the policy reason behind this is to encourage the police to follow the Constitution. If they don’t, the evidence they find may be ruled to be inadmissible. This creates a strong motivation for the police to respect the constitutional rights of the citizens.
In civil cases the court generally specifies a deadline several weeks before the trial by which motions to exclude evidence must be filed. Usually, before trial the judge conducts a hearing to review these matters. Sometimes the judge will tell you whether some piece of evidence is admissible, but sometimes he wants to hear more about the case during the trial to get the proper context. Lawyers frequently have to make tactical decisions based upon what they think the judge might do on some evidence question, and this is why a crystal ball comes in mighty handy during a jury trial.
When the trial starts, the admissibility of evidence is mainly controlled by the Rules of Evidence. The rules cover a lot of different kinds of evidence and most rulings depend heavily on the facts and context of the case. Rule 102 provides that the rules were designed to “…secure fairness, eliminate unjustifiable expense, promote the growth and development of the law of evidence in a way to insure that the truth may be ascertained and judicial proceedings can be justly determined.” That being said, the rules can result in seemingly harsh and random results. The rules cover things like hearsay evidence, character evidence, evidence of a witnesses prior criminal record, offers of settlement between the parties, whether either of the parties has insurance coverage for the damages alleged, and many other areas too numerous to mention here.
Sometimes the rules can seem to be unfair in a given situation. If some critical bit of evidence is excluded in your case you may feel that you were not allowed to tell the jury the whole truth. If some hideous piece of evidence or testimony against you is excluded you may feel pretty good about the rules. Either way, you may not know if the evidence is coming in until late in the case. We call this the “hazards of litigation.”
It has been my experience that the rules are generally fair to both parties. The rules are quite complicated so it really helps when the lawyers and the judge understand them. You can’t be an effective trial lawyer if you don’t understand the rules, and one of the best things you can say about a trial judge is that he enforces them.