August 11, 2011
It’s a favorite moment in television shows and movies about legal proceedings. Tension builds , tempers flare and (usually after some raised voices) our protagonist legal counsel leaps to his or her feet and screams, “I object!” Whether it’s Daniel Kaffee in “A Few Good Men” or Vincent Gambini in “My Cousin Vinny,” the moment where that objection is raised is often a climax in the storyline.
What does it mean? I know that I object to people wearing flip-flops when they’re not on the beach. I object to restaurants that put breading on chicken wings. I object to television newscasters who use the phrase, “how it all went down.” But just what are these lawyers objecting to in court?
Court proceedings are not a free-for-all. The American judicial system has, over the course of two centuries, taken the British underpinnings that it inherited and formed a series of rules that seek to make the proceedings fair for both sides and to aid the court in finding the truth. Some of those rules are procedural, some apply to specific types of courts and others apply to specific parts or types of proceedings, such as the rules of evidence.
Evidentiary rules vary depending on the type of hearing and the jurisdiction in which the case is being heard. Each state has its own set of evidence rules and the federal court system operates on yet a different version. That being said, those differing sets of evidentiary rules are very similar and legal advocacy groups develop model rules that they recommend states and the federal government adopt. Those evidence rules govern who may testify, what is relevant, what constitutes hearsay, what qualifies one to be an expert witness, what basic things a court may take notice of, how documents can be admitted into the record and much more.
The rules of evidence are so important to judicial proceedings that courses on evidence typically run for the entire first year of law school. Judges and attorneys, who are required to meet a continuing education requirement, frequently attend seminars to refresh their knowledge of the rules and to keep up on changes that come from rule amendments and from judicial decisions that interpret how the rules are to be applied.
When an attorney objects in a case, he or she is usually telling the judge or magistrate that they believe the other side has done or is attempting to do something in violation of the rules. The attorney may be trying to introduce evidence that is irrelevant, admit a document that has not been properly identified or stray into an area of testimony that is simply impermissible.
One evidence rule generally provides that a person’s prior convictions for criminal offenses are not admissible on a later charge unless certain conditions are met. The theory behind the rule is that a jury might simply convict a person on the basis that they had previously committed a crime, even if there was insufficient evidence on the current offense. If a witness divulged the prior conviction during testimony, the defendant’s attorney would object. In some situations like that, the violation is so severe that a mistrial might result.
My first experience in a courtroom was nearly foiled by an evidence rule I didn’t know. I was a third year law student and handling a juvenile traffic case. I had the officer on the stand, but every time I tried to ask him a question the attorney for the juvenile objected. I was completely clueless as to why. Fortunately for me, the attorney in question was one of Delaware’s finest lawyers, Keith Boger. After four or five objections, Keith kindly pointed out to me that I neglected to ask the officer if he was in uniform and driving a marked cruiser on the day he issued the ticket.
Because Ohio law does not allow officers in unmarked cruisers to issue traffic citations, evidence rule 601(C) provides that the officer must have been in uniform and in a marked cruiser in order to testify about the traffic stop. I asked the question and we moved on to the substance of the case.
The full text of the Ohio Rules of Evidence can be found on the website of the Supreme Court of Ohio at supremecourtohio.gov.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.