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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Contents May Have Shifted: The Best Evidence Rule & the Truth of the Matter Asserted

Following up on yesterday's post, State v. Stramiello, 392 So.2d 425 (La. 1980), is actually a case in which a court -- the Supreme Court of Louisiana -- found that the Best Evidence Rule did not apply to a writing offered to impeach a witness rather than to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Like the dissent in the case, I disagree.

In Stramiello, Thomas M. Stramiello was charged by bill of information with simple escape from "Camp Beauregard Work Release Center, a unit of the Louisiana Department of Corrections." After he was convicted, Stramiello appealed, claiming, inter alia, that

the trial judge erred in permitting the state, over his objections, to question witnesses about the letter defendant used in making his escape. He argue[d] that the letter itself was the best evidence of its contents; therefore, parol evidence concerning its contents was inadmissible.

Specifically,

On the day of his escape, defendant presented a letter purportedly from a trade school which stated that he was enrolled in a special class that met that evening. Defendant was dropped off at the school and, when the officer who had taken him to school later returned to pick him up, the officer was unable to locate him and discovered from school authorities that no class had been scheduled for that evening.

In rejecting Stramiello's argument, the Supreme Court of Louisiana concluded that

The best evidence rule is applicable only when the purpose of offering evidence of the writing is to establish the truth of statements contained therein. When evidence is not offered for the purpose of proving the truth of a writing's contents, but for the purpose of impeaching a witness, the rule is not applicable....In the instant case, the state was not attempting to prove the truth of the statements contained in the letter, that is, that defendant was enrolled in a special class that met on the evening in question. On the contrary, the state's theory of the case was that defendant made his escape by presenting a letter which contained the falsehood that defendant was enrolled in the special class. The state used the testimony about the letter to impeach defendant's claim that he was in an amnesic state during the time he left the center and thus could not have the requisite intent to commit the crime of simple escape. Hence, the best evidence rule is not applicable here (emphais added).

A dissenting justice disagreed, simply stating the following: "[T]he majority's statement that the best evidence rule applies only to written documents offered for the truth of the matter asserted therein is questionable."

I agree with the dissent, and here is my reasoning. At the time of Stramiello's case, La.R.S.15:437 provided that

Matters which can be proved only by written evidence can not be established by parol; but the contents of a document may be proved by parol, if its loss or destruction be shown, or if it is in the possession of the adverse party and he fails to produce it after reasonable notice.

In other words, as I have noted over the last several days, the Best Evidence Rule is about proving the contents of writings, recordings, and photographs; it is not about proving the truth of the contents. In other words, imagine if what Stramiello presented was a letter stating that he was suffering from memory loss. In that case, his letter would be consistent with his claim that he was in an amnesic state, and the letter would not be relevant to impeach him. This is the point of the Best Evidence Rule. If a party seeks to present evidence that relies for its relevance of a writing, recording, or photograph containing certain contents, the party has to produce the original or account for its nonproduction because the original is the best evidence of those contents.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2013/04/following-up-onyesterdays-post-state-v-stramiiello-392-so2d-425-la-1980-is-actually-a-case-in-which-a-court-the-su.html

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