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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Looking For Some (In)Consistency: Florida Case Perfectly Illustrates Differences Between Two Prior Inconsistent Statement Rules

Rarely do I find a case that perfectly illustrates the differences between the two prior inconsistent statement rules.  The recent opinion of the District Court of Appeal of Florida in S.L. v. State, 2008 WL 4489253 (Fl.App. 4 Dist. 2008), however, fits the bill perfectly.

In S.L., "S.L. appeal[ed] her adjudication of delinquency for simple assault on the grounds that the trial court erred by allowing the state to prove its case exclusively through the mother's prior inconsistent statements."  Specifically, on a September evening, S.L. and her mother engaged in a heated argument in their living room concerning S.L.'s purchase of a motor vehicle.  Following the argument, S.L. stayed in the living room and her mother went to her bedroom, whereupon she heard a crash.  The mother returned to the living room, where she discovered that S.L. was gone and the coffee table was broken.  The mother called the police, and a deputy conducted an investigation, which resulted in S.L. being charged with criminal mischief and assault.

At S.L.'s ensuing trial, her mother testified that she called the police after she returned to the living room and discovered that S.L. was gone and the coffee table was broken.  When the state inquired as to whether the argument got "a little bit more than just a little hostile between you and your daughter," the mother replied that it did not. The state then asked whether S.L. threatened her, and the mother responded, "No, she did not."  Finally, the state asked the mother whether she told the officer that S.L. said, "You bitch, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to stab you," and the mother again responded, "No, I did not."  The state then called the responding deputy as its next witness, and, over defense counsel's objection, the deputy testified that the mother told him that she called the police after S.L. became very aggressive and said, "Bitch, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to stab you."

At the conclusion of the state's evidence, S.L. moved for a judgment of dismissal on both charges, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of guilt and that the mother's prior inconsistent statements could not be used as substantive evidence. The trial court granted the motion as to the criminal mischief charge but denied the motion as to the simple assault charge and later found S.L. her guilty of simple assault based solely upon the deputy's testimony.  This prompted S.L.'s appeal.

What the court didn't address was that the deputy's testimony was actually "hearsay within hearsay" under Florida Statute Section 90.805 because the deputy was testifying about what the mother told him about what her daughter told her.  The court jumped to the issue of whether the mother's statement was hearsay, which actually is fine because the S.L.'s alleged statement was an admission of a party-opponent under Florida Statute Section 90.803(18)(a), meaning that the sole question the court needed to decide was whether the mother's statement was hearsay.

And the court found that it was hearsay because it did not qualify for admission as a prior inconsistent statement under Florida Statute Section 90.801(2)(a), which deems a statement nonhearsay "if the declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross-examination concerning the statement and the statement is...[i]nconsistent with the declarant's testimony and was given under oath subject to the penalty of perjury at a trial, hearing, or other proceeding or in a deposition."  The problem for the state was that "the mother's statements to the deputy were not given under oath at a trial, hearing, or other proceeding or in a deposition."  This was because the Florida Supreme Court has found (as it had to) that a statement given during a police investigation is not a statement given at an "other proceeding."

This is not to say that the deputy's testimony was inadmissible.  It just means that because the mother's statement was hearsay, her statement could not be used to prove the truth of the matter asserted:  that S.L. threatened her.  Instead, under Florida Statute Section 90.614, it could only be used for impeachment, i.e., to call into question the credibility of the mother of a witness. 

I always like to tell my students in contrasting these two prior inconsistent statement rules that the difference between the two is that when a prior consistent statement is admissible only for impeachment purposes and it is the only evidence of a defendant's guilt, the court must grant a motion for dismissal/directed verdict because there is no substantive evidence of the defendant's guilt.  In other words, in S.L.' case, the only evidence of S.L.'s guilt was her mother's statement, but that statement was not admissible substantively to prove S.L.'s guilt; it was only admissible for impeachment purposes.  Thus, the court correctly found that the trial court erred and reversed S.L.'s adjudication of delinquency on the simple assault charge.

-CM

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