The Best Evidence Rule in Action

June 18, 2018 § Leave a comment

You won’t see many appellate cases in which the best evidence rule (MRE 1002, 1003, and 1004) comes into play. That’s because the appellate courts give great deference to the trial judge’s rulings on evidence.

But a recent case shows how the rule can come up at trial, how the trial judge deals with it, and how the appellate courts address it.

A contract dispute arose between Clifford Frisby and Ferrell Warden over sale of a home. Warden claimed that the parties had an agreement that he would perform certain work on the property and be given credit for the value of the work against the sale price. At trial he offered three documents into evidence to support his claim. Frisby objected to their authenticity. The chancellor ruled that they were admissible, and ultimately ruled in favor of Warden. Frisby appealed on several grounds, one of which was that the chancellor erred in admitting the three documents contrary to the best evidence rule.

In Frisby, et al. v. Warden, decided May 8, 2018, the COA affirmed. Judge Greenlee wrote the opinion for a unanimous court:

¶7. Frisby asserts that the chancellor improperly admitted the disputed handwritten contracts into evidence. According to Frisby, these documents were duplicates of original handwritten documents that he never signed. Therefore, he argues that pursuant to Mississippi Rules of Evidence 1002 and 1003, the duplicates were inadmissible because there was a genuine question as to their authenticity. In response, Warden asserts Frisby has
offered nothing to show that the chancellor abused her discretion nor that any substantial right has been affected. A review of the record indicates that the chancellor, in denying Frisby’s motion for reconsideration, explained the handwritten contracts were admitted into evidence pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Evidence 1004(c). We find this determination was not manifest error.

¶8. Frisby correctly asserts that pursuant to Rule 1002, known as the best-evidence rule, an original writing is generally required to prove its contents. Further, pursuant to Rule 1003, Frisby correctly asserts that a duplicate cannot be admitted when a genuine issue has been raised about the original’s authenticity. However, an exception to the best-evidence rule exists when the party against whom the original would be offered had control of the original, received notice that the original would be subject to proof at trial, and failed to produce the original at trial. M.R.E. 1004(c).

¶9. In the present case, Warden introduced duplicates of three handwritten documents into evidence in support of his complaint for specific performance. Frisby initially objected to their introduction, but allowed them to be introduced “for the purpose of this hearing,” while still contesting their authenticity. Thus, the hearing proceeded to determine the authenticity of the alleged contracts, with both parties presenting multiple witnesses.

¶10. During the hearing, Frisby testified as an adverse witness and explained that he had never seen the three alleged contracts before and that Warden had never been to his office. However, Warden testified that he drafted all three of the handwritten documents “so that [he] could have some kind of documentation on a deal [they] had on the house.” Further, Warden testified that while he originally had the original documents, he met Frisby at Frisby’s office, where Frisby made copies of the documents and retained the originals, and gave Warden copies. Michael Neill, the previous owner of the property, also testified for Warden. He testified that he deeded the property to Frisby in 2010, and that when he spoke with Warden in 2011 or early 2012, Warden said he was buying the house from Frisby and “doing odd jobs” to pay off the house. Further, Neill testified that he saw Frisby sign a document in 2014, but that he did not know the document’s purpose. Neill later testified that he had overheard Frisby and Warden discussing ownership of the house for labor.

¶11. As previously mentioned, the admission or suppression of evidence is within the discretion of the trial judge and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Tunica Cty. [v. Matthews], 926 So. 2d [209] at 212 (¶5) [(Miss. 2006)]. Further, “the chancellor sits as the fact finder and is the sole judge of the credibility of a witness when resolving factual disputes.” Stokes v. Campbell, 794 So. 2d 1045, 1048 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001). As such, it was the chancellor’s job as trier of fact to determine which version she found more credible. LeBlanc v. Andrews, 931 So. 2d 683, 689 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). The chancellor, after hearing all the evidence, accepted Warden’s testimony as the most credible, admitting the duplicates pursuant to Rule 1004(c). Because there was substantial credible evidence in the record to support the chancellor’s finding, this Court must accept them. Accordingly, this issue is without merit.

Not much to add. The chancellor found the documents to be what they purported to be — that’s authenticity — and her decision was supported by evidence in the record. It’s her call to make, she made it, and the COA affirmed it.

The testimony that Frisby copied the documents and kept the originals was enough to shoot down his demand to produce the originals, per MRE 1004(c).

NAVIGATING IN THE BACKWASH OF THE BEST EVIDENCE RULE

October 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

We visited MRE 1002, the so-called “Best Evidence Rule,” in this post. It can be confusing and a pitfall for attorneys and judges alike. To put it concisely, the rule requires that you produce the original of a writing if you are trying to prove its contents.

So you’re cruising through cross-examination of the opposing party and the other side makes an objection based on the Best Evidence Rule, which the judge sustains. The problem for you is that you don’t have the original; all you have is the copy you had started questioning the witness about. What do you do now?

That’s where MRE 1003 and 1004 come in. They point possible ways past your dilemma.

MRE 1003 says that you can use a duplicate unless there is a “genuine question” as to its authenticity, or where it would be unfair to admit the duplicate in place of the original. In the case of Ellzey v. James, 970 So.2d 193, 195 (Miss.App. 2007), the court upheld a chancellor’s finding that the duplicate was not admissible where it was only a partial copy, and there was an issue of possible alteration. Some cases in which the trial court’s findings of authenticity supported use of a duplicate include: Trull v. State, 811 So.2d 243, 246 (Miss.App. 2000); Foster v. Noel, 715 So.2d 174, 182 (Miss. 1998); and Seals v. State, 869 So.2d 429, 433 (Miss.App. 2004). In DeLaBeckwith v. State, 707 So.2d 547, 602-3 (Miss. 1998), the court held that copies of 1964 trial transcripts were properly authenticated as judicial records, and affidavits of attorneys who were present at the 1964 proceedings to the effect that the transcripts were inaccurate were not adequate to impeach the authenticity of the judicial records.

MRE 1004 offers several other ways out of the trap. The original is not required, and the court may admit other evidence of its contents if …

  1. The original is lost or destroyed, and not due to a bad-faith act of the proponent; or
  2. The original is not obtainable by any available judicial process; or
  3. The original is in possession of the opponent who has not produced it after being put on notice that it will be at issue at trial; or
  4. It is not closely related to a controlling issue.

It’s up to you, once the judge has ruled, to satisfy him or her that one of the exceptions applies. That usually will require some evidence unless counsel opposite concedes the point.

Some other exceptions to the Best Evidence Rule recognized in Mississippi case law:

  • When a sound recording is enhanced to eliminate background noise, and the conversations on it are not changed in any way, the recording is admissible as an original. Cook v. State, 728 So.2d 117, 121 (Miss.App. 1998). 
  • Writings used to refresh a witness’s recollection need not be admissible in evidence, so the Best Evidence Rule does not apply. Hunt v. State, 687 So.2d 1154, 1162 (Miss. 1997).
  • Because the contents of a letter were not related to the issues before the court, the Best Evidence Rule did not apply. Farris v. State, 906 So.2d 113, 117-8 (Miss.App. 2004).
  • Where the document is offered merely to prove that it exists, and not to prove its contents, the Best Evidence Rule does not come into play. Kinard v. Morgan, 679 So.2d 623, 625 (Miss. 1996).
  • A true copy of a handwritten note was admitted over the original handwritten note in a case where an insurance agent was shown to have altered the original handwritten note, and the copy showed it before alteration. Dixie Insurance Co. v. Mooneyhan, 684 So.2d 574, 581-2 (Miss. 1996).  

UNDERSTANDING THE BEST EVIDENCE RULE

January 12, 2011 § 8 Comments

I would nominate MRE 1002 for second-most misunderstood rule of evidence (the all-time front-runner, without peer, would be the hearsay rule).

It’s fairly common to hear an exchange like this in court:

Atty 1:     How much did you pay for the house?

Atty 2:     Objection. The best evidence of what was paid would be the closing statement.

That objection and every one like it should be overruled.

MRE 1002 states:

To prove the content of a writing, recording or photograph, the original writing, recording or photograph is required except as otherwise provided in these rules or by law.  [Emphasis added]

The rule only applies and requires the original when a party is seeking to prove the content of the original.  Farris v. State, 906 So.2d 113, 115 (Miss. App. 2004).  It does not apply simply because there exists a writing, recording or photograph that may be considered the “best” evidence of the matter. 

The rule comes into play only when (a) the content of the writing, recording or photograph is itself the thing a party is trying to prove, or (b) a party is trying to prove a matter by using a writing, recording or photograph as evidence of it.  The rule applies only when one seeks to prove the contents of the writing, photograph or recording so that they may be construed, and does not apply when one is seeking only to prove the existence of a writing, recording or photograph.  Kinard v. Morgan, 679 So.2d 623, 625 (Miss. 1996).

An example of (a) would be where the party is trying to testify to the terms of a written contract.  The contract itself would be the best evidence, and the original would need to be produced.

An example of (b) would be where the witness is testifying about the a claim based on an invoice that shows the items purchased, dates of purchase and prices.  The original invoice would itself establish the claim and would be the best evidence of the transaction.

The rule would not apply to the following situations:

A witness with personal knowledge can testify about how much he earned in a pay period without producing the original pay records.  Simply because written documents pertaining to a matter exist does not mean that a witness may not testify on personal knowledge about the matter.  On the contrary, though, if the witness does not have personal knowledge and relies on documents for her information, she would be required to produce the original documents.

A witness may testify that a document exists without producing the original, but any testimony about the document’s content will require production of the original.

A person who heard another make a statement that was recorded may testify about what she heard without having to produce the recording.

The rule does not apply to physical evidence that is not writings, photographs or recordings.  Riley v. State, 1 So.3d 877, 882 (Miss. App. 2008).  In Riley, the appellant argued unsuccessfully that the State had violated the best evidence rule by not offering the original firearm involved in the crime into evidence.

The evidence qualifies as a “duplicate,” as defined in MRE 1001(4).

So here is the bottom line:  A witness may testify on personal knowledge about a matter even if there is a writing, recording or photograph that documents the same thing, and the writing, recording or photograph need not be produced in such an event; but you must produce the original if you are trying to prove its content.

An important caveat:  Just because you have satisfied MRE 1002 by producing the original does not in and of itself make that original admissible.  The document or recording must still meet authentication and hearsay objections, and a foundation must be laid for admission of the photograph.

MRE 1004 provides some exceptions to the requirement for the original, such as loss or destruction of the original, original not obtainable, or original in possession of an opponent.  Production of the original may also be dispensed with if the document, recording or photograph pertains only to collateral matters.

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