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Inadmissible Evidence: Definition & Law

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  • 0:00 Inadmissible Evidence
  • 1:11 Relevance of…
  • 1:58 Reliability of…
  • 2:54 Evidence Gathered…
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wendy Faircloth

Wendy has taught all subjects of high school social studies and English and has a master's degree in Secondary Education.

What evidence can be used in court of law? This lesson explains what evidence is inadmissible and reasons why certain types of evidence cannot be used in court.

Inadmissible Evidence

'Objection, Your Honor!' proclaims the defense attorney. 'The prosecution's photograph is inflammatory and prejudicial. It proves nothing and will only distract and upset the jury. It's clearly inadmissible.'

'Objection sustained. The photo is inadmissible,' the judge rules.

One juror leans over and whispers to another. 'Why can't we see that? Shouldn't we see everything possible in making our decision?'

Jurors and the public may wonder why certain evidence is not permitted in court. After all, isn't the goal to get to the truth? The answer is a bit more complicated. Truth is certainly a goal, but the way the truth is obtained and presented is key to rules of evidence.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of Americans to a fair trial. For a trial to be fair, the evidence presented must also be fair. Over the years, the U.S. court system has developed some guidelines for ensuring that evidence used at trial meets standards of relevance and reliability and has been gathered lawfully.

Here are some guiding principles behind the rules of evidence. These rules determine what is admissible evidence, which can be used at trial and become part of the permanent record, and inadmissible evidence, which may not be mentioned at trial or viewed or considered by the jury.

Relevance of Inadmissible Evidence

In a headline-gripping case, a criminal defendant is accused of molesting a minor child. Can the prosecution tell the jury everything in the defendant's criminal record? The answer may surprise you. The defendant's prior bad acts, or previous criminal offenses, must be very relevant to the matter on trial. For example, the defendant's previous criminal history of drunken driving would be inadmissible since it is not relevant to the matter on trial.

Even when something is relevant to the current case being tried, a judge may not permit evidence if it is extremely prejudicial. Prejudicial evidence weighs heavily on the jury's emotion and may have too much influence on their decision. For example, while crime scene photos are likely to be permitted, a photo of a sobbing member of the victim's family would be inadmissible because of its likelihood of inflaming the jury's emotions.

Reliability of Inadmissible Evidence

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys often call expert witnesses, or individuals whose professional credentials and experience in a certain area qualify them to give a scientifically sound opinion. Normally, witness testimony is strictly limited to matters of fact, but expert witnesses may give their professional opinions. For example, a psychiatrist's opinion that the defendant in the case was clinically depressed and suicidal would be admissible because of the doctor's qualifications to diagnose and treat this disease. The same opinion offered by the defendant's friend would be inadmissible.

If you've seen Law & Order or a similar show, you've heard attorneys object to witness testimony as hearsay. The hearsay rule generally means that testimony must be a firsthand account, not a matter of secondhand gossip. The statement 'Ron told me the defendant, Amanda, told him she was going to get even with the victim, Susan, for stealing her boyfriend' is an example of inadmissible hearsay.

Evidence Gathered Legally and Constitutionally

Most Americans can probably recite at least the beginning of what is known as the Miranda warning: 'You have the right to remain silent…' This warning to the arrested person comes from the landmark Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when people are going to be questioned by police in a criminal matter they must be informed of their constitutional rights before questioning. These rights include the right to avoid self-incrimination and the right to have an attorney present during questioning.

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