EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Crack House Crackdown: Federal Judge Finds Officials' Statements To Be Nonhearsay In Case Against "The Worst Mayor In America"

Some people (no, not Keith Olbermann) have referred to Mississippi Mayor Frank Melton as "The Worst Mayor in America."  And now, pursuant to a ruling by a federal court judge, he may have to pay for some of his misdeeds. 

Prosecutors allege that Melton and a group of young men, some with criminal records, used sledgehammers and a large stick to break apart a duplex Melton has since said was a crack house.  Consequently, they charged Melton and others with violating the constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure for Evans Welch, who was living in the duplex, and Jennifer Sutton, who owns the structure.  Prosecutors also charged the men with violating those civil rights "under color of law" and committing a violent crime while possessing a handgun.

So, what was the hearsay ruling at issue?  Well, apparently, prior to the crack house crackdown, Attorney General Jim Hood and Jackson Police Department officers had warned the mayor against unconstitutional searches and seizures.  And while Melton’s motion called those warnings inadmissible hearsay, Judge Daniel Jordan ruled them admissible, which was very damaging to Melton because the prosecution has to show that Melton knew his actions were illegal.

So, why did Judge Jordan rule these statements admissible?  Well, I would guess that he found that the statements were nonhearsay.  Federal Rule of Evidence 801(c) defines hearsay as "a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted."  In this case, however, the prosecution was seeking to use the warnings not to prove the truth of the matter asserted therein, but simply to prove that Melton was put on notice and given a duty to investigate the constitutionality of his actions.  As I wrote in a recent case in which Fire Department Officials told bar patrons that their practice of setting fire to alcohol poured on the bar could seriously injure someone:

     "the prosecution does not need to offer these statements to prove their substance.  Instead, the prosecutor can introduce those statements merely to prove that they put Ward on notice, such that he had a duty to investigate and potentially end his bar's dangerous practice. See, e.g., Sadowsky v. Anchor Packing Co., 1996 WL 191634 at *3 (Wis.App. 1996) ("Because the exhibit was offered to show notice to Garlock, it was not shown for the truth of the matter stated within, but rather for the effect of the information on Garlock. Offered for that purpose, the exhibit would not have been hearsay.").  been hearsay.").



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