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Hearsay Exceptions: Public Records & Reports

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In my last blog post on hearsay exceptions, I discussed the business records exception. Here, I’ll address the hearsay exception for public records and reports.

Rule 803(8) provides a hearsay exception for “[r]ecords, reports, statements, or data compilations, in any form, of public offices or agencies, setting forth:

(A)       the activities of the office or agency,

(B)       matters observed pursuant to duty imposed by law as to which matters there was a duty to report, excluding, however, in criminal cases matters observed by police officers and other law‑enforcement personnel, or

(C)       in civil actions and proceedings and against the State in criminal cases, factual findings resulting from an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law.”

Covered Records and Reports. The rule refers to “[r]ecords, reports, statements, or data compilations, in any form.” N.C. R. Evid. 803(8)(A).

Activities of the Office or Agency. The rule covers records, etc. setting forth “the activities of the office or agency.” N.C. R. Evid. 803(8). Examples include:

  • records of a county tax department, State v. Oxendine, 112 N.C. App. 731, 738 (1993); and
  • a magistrate’s civil driver’s license revocation order, State v. Woody, 102 N.C. App. 576, 578 (1991).

Pursuant to Duty Imposed By Law. The rule covers records, etc. setting forth “matters observed pursuant to duty imposed by law as to which matters there was a duty to report.” N.C. R. Evid. 803(8)(B). This would include, for example a medical examiner’s investigation and autopsy report, In re J.S.B., 183 N.C. App. 192, 197-98 (2007), and reports by SBI analysts. State v. Acklin, 317 N.C. 677, 682 (1986). By contrast, one case held that a City Manager’s report of the police department’s handling of a murder case wasn’t the result of authority granted by law. State v. Hunt, 339 N.C. 622, 654 (1994).

In criminal cases, the rule excludes “matters observed by police officers and other law‑enforcement personnel,” N.C. R. Evid. 803(8)(B), such as officers’ observations during investigations. State v. McLean, 205 N.C. App. 247, 250 (2010). Thus, the notes of a non-testifying, undercover officer summarizing alleged drug transactions with the defendant are inadmissible under this exception. State v. Harper, 96 N.C. App. 36, 40 (1989). Also inadmissible is a defendant’s exculpatory statement to an officer that is contained in the officer’s report. State v. Maness, 321 N.C. 454, 459. However, this provision doesn’t exclude records of routine, ministerial matters made by law enforcement in a non-adversarial setting, such as booking records. See, e.g., McLean, 205 N.C. App. at 250-51.

Findings From an Investigation. The rule covers records, etc. setting forth “factual findings resulting from an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law.” N.C. R. Evid.. 803(8)(C). The term “factual findings” doesn’t preclude admission of reports containing conclusions or opinions. Official Commentary to N.C. R. Evid. 803; see also In re J.S.B., 183 N.C. App. 192, 196-98 (2007) (the fact that a medical examiner’s investigation and autopsy report contained the medical examiner’s opinion as to cause of death in addition to objective observations of the victim’s physical injuries did not preclude admissibility).

Lack of Trustworthiness. Public records and reports are inadmissible if “the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness.” N.C. R. Evid. 803(8); see Official Commentary to N.C. R. Evid. 803 (this provision applies to all three parts of the rule).

Determining whether information or circumstances indicate a lack of trustworthiness requires a consideration of the totality of the circumstances surrounding “the making of the statement and that render the declarant particularly worthy of belief.” State v. Little, 191 N.C. App. 655, 666 (2008) (citation omitted). Compare id. (excluding a statement by non-testifying witness contained in an SBI agent’s crime scene report), with State v. Acklin, 317 N.C. 677, 682 (1986) (impartiality of SBI agents who created reports and ability to cross-examine witnesses assured trustworthiness), and State v. Watson, 179 N.C. App. 228, 245 (2006) (admitting prison records after finding that the circumstances did not indicate a lack of trustworthiness).

Authentication. All that is required to authenticate a public record is evidence that the record, etc. “is from the public office where items of this nature are kept.” State v. Oxendine, 112 N.C. App. 731, 738 (1993) (quoting N.C. R. Evid. 901(b)(7)). For original public records or documents, this is typically done with testimony by the custodian that it “is a part of the records or files of the custodian’s office.” Id.; see also 2 Brandis & Broun at 900.

N.C. R. CIV. P. 45(c)(2), which applies in criminal cases, G.S. 15A-801, allows custodians of public records to submit certified copies of records and affidavits in response to subpoenas.

Relation To Other Rules. The Official Commentary to Rule 803 says that public records and reports that are not admissible under the Rule 803(8) exception are not admissible as business records under Rule 803(6). Whether this is in fact the law in North Carolina is not clear. See State v. Forte, 360 N.C. 427, 436 n.1 (2006) (assuming without deciding that this Commentary reflects the intent of the General Assembly). But see State v. Wise, 178 N.C. App. 154, 160 (2006) (not mentioning this commentary but stating: “there is no merit in defendant’s argument that Rule 803(6) is limited by Rule 803(8)”); State v. Lyles, 172 N.C. App. 323, 325 n.1 (2005) (citing a now discredited North Carolina Supreme Court case for the proposition that Rule 803(8) does not restrict Rule 803(6)).

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