In a legal dispute, two or more parties present their grievances before a court of law. To support their claims, either party can introduce some proof, which the judge can use in deciding the outcome of the lawsuit. Such proof produced before a judge with his/her permission is known as evidence.
Evidence can be of different types. All spoken or written statements made by witnesses is called testimonial evidence. Material evidence involves all objects relevant to the lawsuit, like murder weapons in a criminal case. On the other hand, documentary evidence involves written material, like wills and contracts. Finally, demonstrative evidence contains recorded aspects of the case, such as photos, videotapes, and maps.
Among all the types of evidence explained above, documentary and demonstrative evidence are unique. This is because, making duplicates of documents, photos, or videotapes is a routine affair. This brings their reliability into dispute when such is evidence used in deciding a case. This is why the best evidence rule is used, as the following sections explain.
What is the Best Evidence Rule?
When the contents of a written work or photograph are disputed in a court, then submitting the original copy of such object(s) as evidence is a must. Any duplicate copy of such an object is not admissible as evidence, when the original is available. This legal doctrine is known as the best evidence rule. In the United States, Rules 1001-1008 in Article X of the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) deal with this principle.
What Does it Apply To?
1. Writings and Recordings: Includes letters, words, numbers, or their combinations; either handwritten or mechanically printed on paper.
2. Photographs: Still photographs, X-rays, films, videotapes, and motion pictures.
♦ It is applicable only when the contents of the said document or photograph are to be proven.
♦ When the existence, and not the contents of such recordings is to be proven, original copies are not mandatory.
♦ If the offering party cannot provide the original copy, duplicates may be allowed if the court receives a satisfactory reason.
When are Duplicates Allowed?
■ When the original copy is lost or destroyed, without any fraudulent intentions of the party offering this evidence.
■ If the original copy cannot be obtained by any judicial process.
■ When the material is of a public or official nature.
■ If the original copy is in possession of the opponent.
■ When the writing or photograph is not directly related to a case.
Origin of the Rule
The origin of the best evidence rule can be traced back to the British courts of the 18th century. During this period, courts attempted to limit testimonial evidence in favor of written or documentary evidence. Owing to the lack of sophisticated copying equipment at the time, documents had to be hand-copied by a clerk, which posed the risk of introducing errors. Therefore, the courts required the offering party to produce only original copies to prevent inaccuracies. In the modern day, this rule is used to prevent fraud by digital manipulation of documents and photographs, rather than keep out errors.
◊ United States v. Rivera-Carrizosa
In 1993, Agustin Rivera-Carrizosa was arrested for illegally reentering the United States despite being deported a year ago. During the trial, an agent testified against him, saying that he saw his birthplace mentioned as ‘Mexico’ on his birth certificate, which he found in his immigration file. When Rivera-Carrizosa appealed, the Ninth Circuit Court reversed his conviction because the original copy of the birth certificate had not been produced in court.
◊ Dyer v. State
In 2010, Curt John Dyer was arrested for stealing DVDs from an adult video store in Lauderhill, Florida. The main evidence against him was the store manager’s testimony, saying that he saw the accused committing the crime on surveillance video. The Fourth District Court of Appeals turned down the conviction, because the prosecution had failed to produce the surveillance footage before the court.
◊ United States v. Duffy
In 1972, James H. Duffy was arrested for transporting a stolen car from Florida to California. The evidence produced against him involved the testimony given by an FBI agent, saying that he had seen a white shirt with the letters ‘D-U-F’ in the trunk of the stolen vehicle. Duffy appealed to the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, saying that the best evidence rule had been violated, as the original shirt with the writing had not been produced in court. The judge turned down his appeal, saying that the laundry mark on a shirt was not a writing in the true sense.
The best evidence rule is a relic of the times when copying was done by hand, making original copies the best representation of any document or photograph. With modern photocopying technology making high-quality duplicates possible, many courts have begun to consider these copies as good as the original ones.