What Are Federal Rules of Evidence?

Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

This lesson with discuss the need for and definition of the Federal Rules of Evidence. We'll then go through it Article by Article and gain a general idea of it's contents.

Definition and History

Although the federal courts were all created to be equal, they were not. Differences in the rules of evidence allowed some information to be admitted in some federal courts and kept out in others.

This lack of cohesive system led to courts using different rules depending on their state's rules. Sometimes the rules in one court conflicted with the rules of another.

The American Bar Association (ABA) created a committee in 1961 to create the Federal Rules of Evidence, guidelines now used by each of the federal courts in the United States in order to create a coherent system. This makes the playing field more even for everyone involved.

The Federal Rules of Evidence were not adopted until 1975, however they remain in place today with very few changes.

The Rules in a Nutshell

The Federal Rules of Evidence have 11 articles, each with its own subject. Here is a summary of their contents:

Article I: General Provisions

Article I indicates that whenever there is a question about the admissibility of certain evidence, those discussions and hearings should be outside the presence of the jury. Sometimes the arguments about why something should or should not be allowed into evidence is more persuasive than the evidence itself.

Article II: Judicial Notice

Some evidence can be judicially noticed, meaning that the judge can consider information that is well known. For example, if a witness states that he always paid his rent on the last day of the month, the attorney may ask the court to take judicial notice that there are thirty days in September.

Article III: Presumptions in Civil Cases

When certain facts are taken to be true, a 'rebuttable presumption' may exist. It is then up to the party who may be hurt by the presumption to prove that it is not true. In criminal trials there is a rebuttable presumption that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The government can rebut the presumption by offering evidence that the defendant is guilty.

Article IV: Relevance and Its Limits

If evidence is relevant, then it tends to prove some part of the case true or not true. In a case for a serious car accident, the clothing of the drivers would not be relevant when determining who was at fault. If evidence is not relevant, it cannot be considered by the judge or jury.

This section also deals with evidence in prosecutions regarding sex crimes as well as character evidence.

Article V: Privileges

Television has made the attorney-client privilege a common idea; anything you say to your attorney is confidential and the attorney cannot reveal that information. The Federal Rules of Evidence are a little more detailed and describes how that privilege may be waived.

Privileges, like the attorney-client privilege, protect certain information from being revealed during testimony in court. Because of these privileges, a person cannot be forced to testify about certain communications.

Article VI: Witnesses

Not everyone is qualified to be a witness. Witnesses must have first-hand knowledge of the facts of a case and even then certain people may not be allowed to testify. Witnesses who are allowed to testify must swear to tell the truth and may still be have their credibility questioned.

Article VII: Opinions and Expert Testimony

There can be lay or expert witnesses.

  • Lay witnesses are those that have knowledge of the facts of the case, but have no related special training, knowledge, education, or experience.
  • Expert witnesses are those who have studied and learned a particular subject and can be called upon to give their opinion.

Those familiar with DNA testing could be called as expert witnesses to explain any concerns with how samples were collected from a crime scene. Lay witnesses, on the other hand, could testify as to what they said, heard, smelled, felt or tasted at the crime scene to explain what they thought had happened.

Article VIII: Hearsay

Thanks to television and movies, hearsay is probably the most recognized concept. Hearsay refers to a statement made outside of a courtroom that is meant to prove something in particular.

Some out-of-court statements are not hearsay at all. Some are hearsay technically, but fall under an exemption because of the reliability of the statement. For example, an excited utterance. When something surprising happens, the statement a person makes is genuine. Wow, that red car sure was flying through the intersection! Even though the statement would be hearsay, its reliability allows it to come into evidence.

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