Materiality, Relevance, and Admissibility of Evidence

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In determining the admissibility of evidence, the judge should determine the relevance and materiality of the information.Evidence must be both relevant and material to be admitted. In the United States, a judge presiding over a jury trial will determine the relevance and the jury will determine the materiality. In a bench trial, the judge presides as both trier of law and trier of fact. Therefore, he will determine both the relevance and the materiality of the evidence presented.

Basic Rule : Evidence should be excluded if the prejudicial value outweighs the probative value.

This ensures that the evidence does not unduly sway the trier or fact against the accused more than the totality of evidence should sugggest.

The trier of fact should be given as fair a picture of the situation as possible, so if the evidence is unduly prejudicial, the fairness of the trial would be negated.

We must consider materiality and relevance before we weigh the prejudicial value against the probative value. If not material and relevant, then evidence is not admitted anyway.

Materiality

Evidence is material if it is offered to prove or disprove a specific fact in issue. Thus, evidence is material if it relates to one of the particular elements necessary for proving or disproving a case. If evidence is not material, it the defense or prosecution may object to the use of the evidence on grounds that it would mislead the trier of fact, result in inefficient trials, and prove a distraction to the substantive issues. The exclusion of immaterial evidence is sometimes called the collateral facts rule.

Some evidence may be admissible even if it does not bear directly on an issue of fact as long as it has a relationship to the weight or credibility of evidence (this is the collateral facts rule). Thus, when a witness testifies their credibility, perception, memory and narration or communication are all material even though they are not directly related to an issue of fact. The issue of credibility arises especially with oral evidence, because of perception, memory, narration or communication.

Collateral/Subordinate/Secondary facts are factual disputes that regard competence or credibility of a witness or probative value of other evidence.

Relevance

Evidence is relevant if it indicates a relationship between facts that increases the probability of the existence of the other. A trier of fact (judge or jury) determines the sufficiency or weight of the given evidence. In other words, the trier of law decides whether the evidence is relevant enough to be admitted, but the trier of fact decides how much ot counts (i.e. how much weight or probative value) in determining the verdict.

In order for evidence to meet the relevance threshold, there must be merely some probative value. It is for the trier of fact to decide whether there is sufficient probative value to convict.

Note: Even marginally probative evidence is admissible.

Prejudicial Value

Although relevant and material, evidence MAY be inadmissible if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.[1]

Example: Photos of the murder victim are generally NOT relevant in the United States to prove death because their prejudicial value outweighs the probative value.[2] However, photos may be relevant to any other issue, such as method of killing, defendant's claim of self-defense, etc.

Conditional Relevance

In many cases, a given piece of evidence will only be relevant if another fact is established. This is called conditional relevance. In the United States Federal system, conditional relevance is governed by Federal Rule of Evidence 104(b):

When the relevancy of evidence depends upon the fulfillment of a condition of fact, the court shall admit it upon, or subject to, the introduction of evidence sufficient to support a finding of the fulfillment of the condition.

In order to determine conditional relevance, the judge must first make a determination their is evidence "sufficient to prove by preponderance."[3]

In practice conditional relevance tends to apply in the following cases:

Foundation for admissibility of physical evidence or expert opinions

  • Example: Prosecution calls expert witness to the stand to prove bullet found at the crime scene was fired from the weapon discovered in the defendant's home. The evidence is conditionally relevant based on whether the expert opinion is based on reliable methods.

Proving personal knowledge for witnesses

  • Example: Prosecution calls witness to say defendant fired a weapon into a crowded bus. The evidence is only relevant if the witness has first hand knowledge

Proof of defendant's prior bad act

  • Example: Prosecution wants to introduce evidence that defendant robbed store in the past and had knowledge of how to do it. The evidence is only relevant if the defendant actually committed the crime in the past.

See Evidence

Notes

  1. Federal Rules of Evidence 104(b)
  2. Federal Rules of Evidence 403
  3. Huddleston v. United States, 485 U.S. 681 (1988)