You've probably heard the word hearsay, but what is hearsay evidence? Colloquially, people often use hearsay to mean something like "second hand information." But in the courtroom, hearsay is a term of art with a specific legal meaning. It's one of the most important rules of evidence. It's also one of the most complicated. Accordingly, to evaluate the admissibility of a piece of evidence (whether that evidence can be used in court), it's important to understand the hearsay rule .
What is hearsay evidence?
Hearsay evidence is evidence of a statement that was made other than by a witness while testifying at the hearing and that is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated. There's a few parts to this, so let's take it piece by piece. First, it's important to note that "statement" includes both oral and written statements. The second part just means statements made outside of court.
The final part, "offered to prove the truth of the matter stated," is more complicated. Suppose I want to prove that Jim was driving a red car at the time of the accident. Now say Juan said to Christine: "Jim was driving a red car at the time of the accident." Juan's statement to Christine would be evidence that Jim was driving a red car at the time of the accident. But it would be hearsay if Christine testified to that statement to prove Jim was driving a red car. That's because I'm using the statement "Jim was driving a red car," to prove Jim was driving a red car.
Now suppose I want to prove that Christine believed that Jim was driving a red car at the time of the accident. In this case, Christine's testimony that Juan told her that Jim was driving a red car would not be hearsay. That's because I'm not offering that statement to prove that Jim was driving a red car. Instead, I'm using it to prove only that Christine believed Jim was driving a red car. Therefore, it is not offered to prove the truth of the matter stated (that Jim was driving a red car) and is not hearsay.
What is the significance of evidence being hearsay?
So that's hearsay. But what is the significance of the hearsay rule? In general, hearsay evidence is inadmissible in court. So, if one side tries to offer hearsay evidence, the other side can object and ask the judge not to allow the evidence. If the judge determines the evidence is hearsay, the judge will not allow that evidence to be admitted (unless there's an exception, which is discussed below).
But remember, a statement is only hearsay if it's offered to prove the truth of the statement. So a statement might be inadmissible for one purpose (to prove that Jim was driving a red car), but admissible for another (to prove that Christine believed Jim was driving a red car). Specifically, lawyers often use out of court statements to show things like knowledge or intent. If there is no reason to offer the evidence other than the proving the truth of the matter stated, the party seeking to offer the evidence will need to find an exception to the hearsay rule.
Also, note that when an out of court statement is offered to prove something other than the truth of the matter stated, the judge will typically give the jury a special instruction. For example, take the red car example above. There, I offered Christine's testimony about Juan telling her that Jim was driving a red car to prove she believed Jim was driving a red car. This is not hearsay, but I can't use it to prove Jim was driving a red car. So the judge might instruct the jury that it may not consider that evidence in deciding whether Jim was driving a red car. Of course, in practice, it's difficult for jurors to consider evidence for one issue and ignore it for another, but that's the rule.
Exceptions to the hearsay rule
Hearsay is subject to numerous exceptions. That is, in certain situations, a statement may be admissible even if it is technically hearsay. For example, probably the most common is the opposing party statement or party admission exception. Under this rule, one side can freely offer statements made by the opposing party, even if the opposing party made those statements out of court.
For example, say Ann sues Casey for stealing Ann's purse. Ann could call Ali to testify that Casey told him that he stole Ann's purse to prove that Casey stole Ann's purse. Normally, this would be inadmissible hearsay, since it's an out of court statement and Ann is offering it to prove the truth of what's stated. But, because it's the statement of the opposing party, Ann can offer this statement. Keep in mind, however, that this only applies to statements made by an opposing party. You cannot bring in your own statements under this exception.
Policy rationale for the hearsay rule and it's exceptions
The hearsay rule has numerous other exceptions. There's too many to list here, but thinking about the purpose of the hearsay rule can be a shortcut to finding exceptions. The hearsay rule exists because statements made under oath, in court, where the witness is subject to cross-examination by attorneys, are more reliable than those made casually on the street. If somebody is making statements that are damaging to your case, you want to be able to cross-examine them to test the reliability of those statements and the trustworthiness of the person making them. You can't do this unless that person is in court under oath. A lie can be debunked under cross-examination, but even an egregious lie is difficult to rebut with no opportunity to confront the liar. But sometimes, this isn't as important.
For example, the opposing party statement exception discussed above makes sense in light of the purpose of the hearsay rule. You can't cross-examine yourself so there's no need to ensure an opportunity to cross-examine. Additionally, there's another exception for statements against...