The Rules of Criminal Evidence: Background

The FRE is the most influential body of American evidence law. The FRE encompasses most of the Rules of Evidence in 68 brief sections. Its language is accessible, easy to read, and mostly free of technical jargon and complicated cross-referencing. 

The procedural rules for criminal cases are in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. They govern all aspects of federal criminal trials, and each state has its own similar rules.

The Rules of Evidence, regardless of whether it's civil or criminal evidence, are an essential part of any criminal case. Criminal evidence governs how parties, judges, and juries offer and evaluate the various proof forms at pretrial and during the trial. In some ways, evidence is an extension of both civil procedure and criminal procedure.

The Rules of Evidence are essential when it comes to a criminal case. They often determine whether a defendant could qualify for acquittal or a new trial. An appellate court can also review the evidence.

Generally, evidence law establishes limitations that courts enforce against attorneys to control the various events that the trial process presents in an adversarial setting.

Why the Rules of Evidence Matter

There are many arguments in favor of Rules of Evidence in criminal law. Here are five of the most common ones:

  1. To improve pervasive mistrust of juries in criminal proceedings
  2. To further legal or social policies relating to litigating matters
  3. To further substantive policies unrelated to the matter in suit
  4. To create conditions to receive the most accurate facts in trials
  5. To manage the scope and duration of jury trials/speedy trials/grand jury trials

Federal Rules of Evidence: Overview

In the United States, the federal courts must follow the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE). On the other hand, state courts generally follow their own rules, which the various state legislatures impose.

The FRE has been enormously influential in the development of U.S. evidence law. This influence, in part, is a result of its brevity and simplicity.

Before 1975, U.S. evidence law was mainly based on the common law tradition. A distinguished advisory committee composed of practitioners, judges, and law professors appointed by the United States Supreme Court drafted and proposed the FRE. Just 20 years after the FRE was adopted in the federal system, almost three-quarters of the states had adopted codes that closely resemble the FRE.

The FRE applies in all federal courts in both criminal and civil cases. Understanding some of the basic provisions of the FRE will enable most people to figure out what's going on at trial, even if there are deviations between the FRE and applicable state laws regarding evidence.

Rules of Evidence in the Criminal Justice System

Different types of evidence can be used in a criminal trial, and various rules govern evidence. Some common concepts that come up when discussing the rules of evidence are:

  • Circumstantial Evidence: This isn't what you would call "smoking gun" evidence, but still relevant evidence. If evidence is circumstantial, it means it is some information that strongly infers a set of circumstances. For instance, video surveillance showing that the criminal defendant was on the same city block where a crime was committed around the same time would be circumstantial evidence.
  • Corroborating Evidence: This is evidence that strengthens another piece of evidence, even if it isn't directly related to the crime. For example, a witness claims John was at the crime scene at a particular time. If another witness has proof that John failed to show up to work at that same time, then it could be considered corroborating evidence.
  • Hearsay: This isn't given under oath or offered as official evidence but merely stated out of court. For example, Fred says he heard that John was in a street gang, but Fred's statement is merely hearsay (and not admissible) without any evidence.
  • The Exclusionary Rule: This rule of evidence applies to that obtained in violation of the defendant's constitutional rights. Law enforcement seizing property without a warrant is often considered a violation of the defendant's right and thereby subject to the exclusionary rule.

Get Legal Help Understanding the Rules of Evidence With a Criminal Justice Lawyer

If you're facing criminal charges, evidence -- including physical and expert witness testimony -- will be crucial to how the jury and the trial judge decide the outcome. However, not all evidence is admissible in trial court, and each jurisdiction is governed by strict rules for the admissibility of evidence in a criminal case.

Perhaps you have other questions about criminal law and how evidence is involved in each topic, including:

Contact a local criminal defense attorney who can answer all these questions and provide legal advice.

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