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Hearsay, Part Four: Some 804 Exceptions

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NITA’s blog theme this September is Hearsay? Say What? Recognize It; Use the Rule at Trial.

At NITA programs, we train you to the daily thrill of advocating at trial. We ask you to perform constantly, using the rules of evidence. What about the evidence rules themselves? This month, we discuss one set of evidence rules that cannot be covered in the span of our intense performance programs: the substantive rules on hearsay. Each week, we describe the rule’s bounds and (in true NITA fashion) talk about your advocacy punch for that piece of evidence.

Hearsay, Part Four: Some 804 Exceptions

written by guest blogger and NITA Program Director Professor Frederick Moss 

Last time, I wrote about a few Rule 803 exceptions to the hearsay ban. Today, I address the Rule 804 exceptions.

The distinction between the 803 and 804 exceptions is simple: 804 exceptions do not apply unless the hearsay proponent shows that the declarant is unavailable to testify at trial. The drafters of FRE 804 felt (consistent with the common law) that these forms of hearsay should not be admitted unless there was a greater need for them because the declarant could not be examined about the statements at trial. (Whether this makes any sense is beyond the scope of my topic. Hint: I doubt it.)

The key to admissibility, therefore, is not only that the declaration meets the requirements of the specific exception but also showing that the declarant is “unavailable” as prescribed by Rule 804(a). All the circumstances that qualify as “unavailable” seem straightforward, but there is a hidden trap for the unwary here.

Assume one of your witnesses is scheduled for a serious operation and will be hospitalized during the trial. This appears to meet the definition of unavailability under 804(a)(4)—existing physical illness or infirmity—but not so fast. Rule 804(a)(5) says that when a declarant is deemed unavailable under 804(a)(2), (3), or (4), the proponent must also show that the proponent was unable by reasonable means to procure the declarant’s testimony.

Therefore, if a party knows a witness will be unavailable to testify at trial, the party must either preserve the witness’s testimony or show that it was unable to do so by any reasonable means before it can offer any of the witness’s hearsay statements via an 804 exception. Note that this requirement applies in criminal as well as civil trials.

As for the exceptions themselves, the most used is 804(b)(1): Former Testimony. This is how the deposition of the to-be-unavailable witness gets admitted under the federal rules. The tricky part of this exception is the “predecessor in interest” language. Courts differ over whom this covers. The conservative view is that the party who had the opportunity to examine the witness at the earlier proceeding is a predecessor in interest with the party against whom the testimony is now offered only if the two parties are in legal “privity” with each other. An example would be where the party facing the live testimony at the earlier proceeding was a business that was bought by the party now facing the former witness à la transcript. The former testimony is admissible in this situation. The party who bought the business is now stuck with the examination of the witness by its predecessor. The more liberal view—not supported by the language of the rule—is that the predecessor needs only to have had the same motive as successor to challenge the testimony at the earlier proceeding. Legal privity is not required.

Dying declarations are admitted per FRE 804(b)(2). These are rare, but be careful. Many state rules differ from the FRE. Some require the declarant to have died. The FRE does not. Some states restrict this exception to murder cases or to criminal trials. The FRE allows this exception only in murder and civil cases. In the murder case, necessity rules. In civil cases, who cares? It’s only money. Go figure.

Statements by witnesses that are against pecuniary and proprietary interest come in under 804(b)(3). Some states include statements against social interests—that is, statements that would tend to make the declarant the object of “hatred, ridicule, or disgrace,” to quote the Texas exception. The FRE does not. Examples of statements against “social” interests would be that the declarant had a venereal disease, was a convicted felon, or was a Republican while visiting an Irish bar in Boston.

FRE 804(b)(6) permits hearsay from an unavailable declarant to be admitted if the adverse party either caused or acquiesced in wrongdoing that cause the declarant to be unavailable. So, if you persuade your opponent’s prime witness to go on vacation during the trial, the witness’s hearsay statements of any kind can be admitted at trial. Some states do not have this Rule, but admit hearsay under the “forfeiture by wrongdoing” theory by court opinion.

Finally, the FRE has a “catch all” hearsay exception, Rule 807 (f.k.a. 803(24) and 804(b)(5)). Many states did not adopt this exception. Where it exists, proponents of hearsay that meet no exception or exemption can try to get it in by arguing that the circumstances in which the statement was made, by whom and to whom, and the purpose for which it was made, show it is as reliable as the recognized exceptions, that it is really, really important, and that “Justice,” fairness, and all that is good in this world demand that it be admitted. So, when all else fails, go for it under Rule 807. And, may Justice prevail.