In my last post, I wrote about how a party might authenticate a Facebook direct message or other text-based electronic communication. That post focused on how the proponent of the evidence might establish who wrote the message, i.e., authorship. But what if a party wants to introduce a photograph that was posted on a social media platform? The concept of authorship doesn’t really apply, and in the age of Photoshop and AI-generated images, courts may have serious concerns about the accuracy of online images.
The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment generally guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront and cross-examine his accusers in person. If a witness was available for an earlier trial or other proceeding and the defendant had an opportunity and motive to cross-examine the witness there, the witness testimony from the earlier proceeding may be admitted at a later criminal trial without offending the Confrontation Clause if the witness is unavailable at the time of trial. We have known for some time that this “prior opportunity for cross-examination” can be met at various stages of a criminal proceeding. See State v. Rollins, 226 N.C. App. 129 (2013) (testimony from plea hearing provided prior opportunity for cross); State v. Ross, 216 N.C. App. 337 (2011) (same for testimony at probable cause hearing); State v. Ramirez, (2003) (same for testimony at bond hearing, although the case was decided under hearsay rules and not expressly as a confrontation issue); State v. Chandler, 324 N.C. 172 (1989) (same for testimony from a prior trial); State v. Giles, 83 N.C. App. 487 (1986) (same for testimony from a juvenile transfer hearing). In all those cases, though, the defendant was present at the earlier proceeding, was represented by counsel, and the earlier proceedings could naturally be viewed as a part of the underlying criminal case. In State v. Joyner, 2022-NCCOA-525, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2022), the Court of Appeals expands the concept of prior opportunity to cross to a civil hearing where the defendant did not attend the hearing and was not entitled to counsel. Read on for the details.
My colleagues and predecessors here at the School of Government have written about video evidence many times over the years, summarizing the basic rules and significant cases in posts available here, here, here, here, and here.
Recently, though, I’ve been getting questions about a relatively new but increasingly common type of video evidence: high-tech, app-controlled, and remotely stored videos taken by automated devices ranging from doorbell cameras to wifi-enabled, cloud-connected, teddy bear spy cams. Do the old rules still work the same way for these new video tools? Is it substantive or illustrative evidence? If it’s substantive, how is it authenticated? Is a lay witness qualified to testify about how these cameras work? Does the proponent need the original video? Come to think of it, what is the “original” of a video that exists only as bits of data floating somewhere in the cloud…?
In this blog post from 2012, Professor Jessica Smith summarized Rules of Evidence 101 and 1101, which together dictate that the rules of evidence apply to “all actions and proceedings in the courts of this State,” except for proceedings that are specifically excluded by the rules or another statute. Pursuant to these two rules and the case law interpreting them, proceedings at which the rules of evidence (except for rules of privilege) do not apply include: applications for warrants; grand jury proceedings; first appearances; pretrial release hearings; probable cause hearings; hearings on motions to suppress; witness voir dire; sentencing hearings; probation revocation hearings; and more.
That’s quite a list. If the rules of evidence do not apply to any of these proceedings, are there any limits at all on the evidence that may be offered? Could an unsworn and mentally incompetent witness with no personal knowledge offer irrelevant and prejudicial triple-hearsay testimony about a prior conviction more than 10 years old, offered solely for the purpose of showing the defendant’s bad character and the likelihood that he acted in conformity therewith?
Surely not. But if there are no rules of evidence, why not? The short answer to nearly any question about the admissibility of evidence under Rule 1101(b) is “it’s in the judge’s discretion,” but what guides that discretion, and what are its limits?
It was an epic throw down between two powerhouse teams on Monday in the heart of London. I don’t mean basketball. I certainly don’t mean football. I mean the moot court competition between UNC’s School of Law students and Middle Temple’s barristers-in-training (see earlier post this fall about Middle Temple). No winner was declared, to the disappointment of my students who were rooting on their fellow Tar Heels. But, the teams racked up the legal and educational points.
The defense files a motion to suppress evidence in superior court, and the judge sets the matter for a hearing. The parties and their witnesses show up, ready to give testimony and make their arguments. The judge opens court and asks a simple question: “who’s going first, the state or the defense?”
A view I’ve often heard expressed is that the state has to go first, because even though it was the defendant’s motion which prompted the hearing, “the state always has the burden” and the party with the burden goes first.
That’s generally a correct statement about the burden of proof, but the corresponding rule about order of presentation is a little more… flexible.
The State of North Carolina goes to trial against Donnie Defendant, who is alleged to be the infamous “Tarheel State Killer” and charged with committing a series of brutal assaults and murders several decades ago. The state’s case depends heavily on matching DNA evidence from the crime scene to a sample of DNA taken off a cigarette butt discarded by Donnie. At trial, Special Agent Wanda Witness testifies as an expert in forensic DNA analysis for the state. After explaining the science behind PCR, STR, loci, and markers, Wanda opines that Donnie’s DNA is indeed a match to the DNA recovered from the crime scene.
Sounds like good news for the state, but what exactly does a “match” mean? And how may the significance or statistical probability of that “match” be expressed to the jury? It’s an important question, because what might sound like two similar ways of expressing the same probability can have dramatically different meanings – and possibly even be considered error on appeal.
A few weeks ago I participated in a seminar on digital evidence, and one of the topics we discussed was cell phone records (subscriber information, call detail records, historical location data, etc.). That’s not surprising, since the widespread use of cell phones has made these records an increasingly common and important tool in criminal cases. Location data can help prove that the defendant was in the victim’s house at the time of the murder, call logs can help prove the co-conspirators were in regular contact with each other, and so on.
What did surprise me was when I asked a group of 75+ prosecutors how often they have used an affidavit to authenticate these kinds of records and get them admitted into evidence, without the need for live testimony by a witness from the company? Only one prosecutor had ever done so, and that was in a case with a pro se defendant. There seemed to be a lot of confusion about (i) whether this was even possible, (ii) old rules vs. new rules, and (iii) state court vs. federal court, so I thought this post would be a good opportunity to help clear things up.
I wrote a post (here) about the recorded recollection exception to the hearsay rule, in which I noted that this exception often is confused with the technique of present recollection refreshed under Evidence Rule 612. We see a little of that in the recent court of appeals decision, State v. Brown. Let’s take a look.
After Roshawn Thompson picked up his cousin Kendall Rascoe from the Greenville mall in November 2014, Thompson and a friend, Andre Grey, robbed Rascoe at gunpoint. At Thompson’s armed robbery trial, his defense attorney sought to cross examine Rascoe about Facebook messages he sent to Thompson earlier in the day asking whether Thompson could get some marijuana for him while he was in Greenville. Rascoe denied sending the message and testified that he just happened to run into Thompson at the mall. The State objected to the admission of the screenshot of the messages.
Later in the trial, the State sought to introduce a screenshot of a picture of Thompson and Grey copied from Thompson’s Facebook page. Rascoe showed the investigating detective the picture for purposes of identifying Thompson and Grey. Thompson objected to the admission of the screenshot, in which both of his middle fingers were extended.
How did the trial court rule? Did it make the right call?