Witness Competency

October 22, 2011

Long before Robinson and Daubert subjected expert witnesses to a judicial pre-screening process, Texas judges were acting as gate-keepers as to fact witnesses on the basis of competency. In fact, legal history inTexas is replete with many grounds to exclude witnesses due to incompetency, most of which have long-since been abandoned or repealed, such as religion, race and criminal convictions. Two exclusionary grounds remain, however, in the current rules of evidence – witnesses who are mentally incompetent and children.

According to Rule 601(a) of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the following witnesses shall be incompetent to testify in any proceeding: (1) persons “in an insane condition of mind at the time when they are offered as a witness, or who, in the opinion of the court, were in that condition when the events happened of which they are called to testify,” and (2) children “who appear not to possess sufficient intellect to relate transactions with respect to which they are interrogated.”   

The Burden of Proof:  The mandatory prohibitory language of the rule would suggest that before a party may offer a child or mentally challenged adult as a witness, testimonial competency must first be proven.  This approach would be consistent with the burden of proof required in expert witness gate-keeping, i.e., that the burden lies with the party proffering the witness. However, with regard to witness competency, the rule has been applied in quite the opposite manner. With one exception, the burden of proof belongs to the objecting party, not the offering party, to prove incompetency to testify at trial. The only exception occurs when the witness has previously been declared insane or incompetent. In that situation, a presumption against competency exists, which may be rebutted with evidence of competency (but the mere fact that a witness has previously been declared insane or incompetent will not automatically render the witness’ testimony incompetent).

The Standard:  The three elements to consider when determining testimonial competency are:  (1) the competence of the witness to observe intelligently the events in question at the time of the occurrence; (2) the capacity of the witness to recollect the events, and (3) the capacity of the witness to narrate the facts.  With regard to the third element, a witness must be able: (1) to understand the questions that are asked, (2) to frame intelligent answers to those questions, and (3) to understand the moral responsibility to tell the truth. 

Notably missing from this analysis is any requirement that the testimony be consistent, and it is important to keep that in mind.  Inconsistencies in testimony will not render a witness incompetent.  For example, in Rodriguez v. State, even though the witness, an Alzheimer’s patient, couldn’t remember her own age, the day of the week she was testifying, or that she had been attacked with a knife instead of a pistol, she was still held competent to testify because in other ways her testimony provided a “lucid and purposeful” account of the events surrounding the robbery and assault. Furthermore, all of the witness’s testimony was independently corroborated by either circumstantial or direct evidence. Most frequently, this issue arises in the context of young child witnesses whose testimony can often be inconsistent and confusing. The fact that a child’s testimony is confusing and inconsistent may make it less credible, but it does not render the testimony incompetent. 

Child witnesses are also frequently scrutinized for their ability to understand the moral responsibility to tell the truth.  Because there is no absolute cut-off as to the age in which a child is deemed incompetent to testify as a matter of law, many child witnesses may be too young to articulate or even understand the meaning of a legal oath. Nevertheless, a child may demonstrate competency if he or she has an understanding that it is wrong to lie and is impressed with the need to be truthful. (In those circumstances, a child witness would not be required to take a formal oath prior to testifying.)

Applicability of the Rule:  While at first blush, TRE 601(a) may seem to apply only to the mentally disabled and youngsters, the rule actually has a broad range of applicability, including the physically disabled, the elderly and those suffering from chemical dependency. For example, the capacity of a witness to narrate the facts, including the ability to frame “intelligent answers” to questions, may form the basis of challenge to the testimony of a stroke victim. In one such case, the testimony from the witness who seemingly understood the questions but could respond only with the expression “uh-huh,” which, according to his caretaker/interpreter, meant both “yes” and “no,” depending upon other gestures used at the time he uttered the phrase, was excluded on competency grounds. 

While the capacity to “recollect events” could form the basis of a competency challenge to an elderly witness, infirm memory is not an absolute bar.  For example, one court has held an 80-year old witness with memory deficits competent to testify even though he could not recall the current month or any current events in the news.  In that case, the court held that the witness’s failure to recall certain events should not preclude him from testifying about matters that he could recall.

Finally, while alcoholism or drug dependency does not automatically render a witness incompetent, intoxication may give rise to two grounds for a competency challenge:  (1) a challenge based upon the witness’s inability to observe, recollect or narrate the events at the time of the occurrence due to the witness’s intoxication at the time the events occurred, or (2) a challenge based upon the witness’s inability to observe, recollect or narrate the events in court due to the witness’s intoxication at the time the testimony is offered. Either situation would provide sufficient grounds to exclude testimony on the basis of incompetency.

Texas has come a long way from the days when a witness would be considered legally incompetent based on his or her race, gender, ethnicity or religious beliefs.  Nevertheless, modern day concerns, such as the aging population (and medical issues associated therewith) and society’s struggle with problems of chemical dependency and addiction, raise new questions regarding witness competency at trial.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


The Offer of Proof

October 1, 2011

Perhaps the broadest discretion enjoyed by trial judges is in the admitting or excluding of evidence at trial.  Much of the protection afforded a trial court judge in making evidentiary rulings is found in Rule 103 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, which clearly provides that an erroneous evidentiary ruling, standing alone, is not enough to get a case reversed on appeal.

First, as the rule makes clear, a bad evidentiary call isn’t even error unless it affects a “substantial right” of a party.  In other words, even if the appellate court disagrees with the judge’s evidentiary ruling, if the ruling did not affect the “substantial rights” of a party, there will be no error on appeal. The second, and perhaps most significant reason why trial courts are rarely reversed on appeal for evidentiary rulings is because most errors are waived.  Whether admitted or excluded by the court, Rule 103 provides the guideline on how to preserve error on the ruling. 

If the error is one of admitting evidence, then the steps for preserving error are fairly simple.  The party seeking its exclusion must make a timely and specific objection or motion to strike.  The two essential components of this rule are that the objection be timely and include specific grounds, unless apparent from the context. 

If the error is one of excluding evidence, then preservation of error becomes a bit trickier.  In most circumstances, Rule 103 requires that the proponent of excluded evidence make an “offer of proof” in order to preserve any error on appeal. 

An “offer of proof” is an informal bill of exception, and its purpose is two-fold:  (1) to give the trial court a second chance to look at the evidence before finally ruling on its admissibility, and (2) to complete the record on appeal so that it is clear to the appellate court exactly what was excluded at trial.

With offers of proof, timing is key.  Rule 103 provides that an offer of proof must be made before the jury is charged.  This deadline makes sense.  After all, if one rationale for requiring an offer of proof is to give the trial judge a second chance to make the correct ruling, it would make no sense for an offer of proof to occur after the time for introducing evidence has passed.

Trial courts have broad discretion in directing when the offer of proof can be made, but it is the attorney’s duty to make sure it’s timely.  What this means is that if the trial court directs an attorney to wait until lunchtime, or the end of the day, or some other time to make the offer, it will be incumbent upon the attorney to remember to make the offer at the appropriate time.  However, if the trial court refuses to allow an attorney to make the offer prior to the jury being charged, then reversible error has occurred.  4M Linen & Uniform Supply Co. v. Ballard, 793 S.W.2d 320 (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.] 1990). 

Once the jury has been charged, the time for making an offer has passed.  Tempting though it may be, it is inadvisable for the parties to “agree” to postpone the making of offers until after the jury has begun deliberations.  While arguably a valuable time-saving device, this would thwart one of the primary purposes of the offer.  After all, what would happen if the court actually decided to admit the evidence which the parties agreed to offer while the jury was deliberating?

Furthermore, an attorney should never make a late offer when the trial court has refused to allow a timely one.  In this circumstance, the trial court has committed reversible error, and in the event of an adverse verdict, a new trial is guaranteed.  Why make a late offer and risk satisfying the appellate court that the trial court’s ruling was correct after all?  Id.

The mechanics of making an offer of proof are straight-forward.  The proponent simply needs to demonstrate the nature of the evidence with enough specificity so that the appellate court can determine its admissibility.  This can occur in one of two ways, both of which occur outside the presence of the jury. 

The easiest way is for the attorney to summarize the substance of the testimony.  Most attorneys and judges prefer this method because of its simplicity and expediency.  The second method is to call the witness to the stand and elicit the testimony in question-and-answer form.  While this approach is less convenient and more tedious, a question-and-answer format is mandatory if the other side demands it. 

For tangible evidence, simply mark the evidence as an exhibit and request its inclusion in the record on appeal.  (The same thing can be done for deposition testimony which has been excluded.)

Always keep in mind that an offer of proof is just that – an offer.  Therefore, at the conclusion of the recitation or presentation of the evidence, the proponent of the evidence should re-urge its admission.  As with any other offer of evidence, a ruling must be secured in order to preserve error.  In other words, after giving the court a second chance to consider the evidence, the attorney should secure a final ruling on admissibility.

One last pointer for those who successfully argued for exclusion:  If the excluded evidence could have been impeached or discredited through cross-examination, then it is a good idea to request a question-and-answer format during the offer of proof, followed by a request for brief cross-examination.  On appeal, an effective cross-examination may demonstrate that there was no harm in the trial court’s exclusion of the evidence, even if such exclusion was erroneous.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


Judicial Admissions in Testimony

July 24, 2011

It is a generally-understood principle that a statement of fact contained in a motion or pleading may constitute a formal judicial admission which is accepted as true by the court and jury and binds the party making it.  What is less understood are the circumstances under which this rule may be extended to in-court statements and testimony and when these statements may be held to be equally conclusive.

Although formal judicial admissions may look like the quasi-judicial admissions found in Rule 801 of the Texas Rules of Evidence (statements made during judicial proceedings which are exceptions to the hearsay rule and constitute some evidence, but not conclusive evidence), they actually work more like the discovery admissions of Rule 198 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, because they do constitute conclusive evidence.  The main difference is that they aren’t governed by any rule or statute, and we must look to case law for guidance on their application.

The general rule is that any formal declaration against interest made in open court by a party has the potential for being construed as a judicial admission.  Davidson v. State of Texas, 737 S.W.2d 942 (Tex. App. — Amarillo 1987).  At first blush, it may appear that such a broad rule would carry enormous risk that an unsophisticated or imprudent client might just talk himself right out of court.  Fortunately, the law provides certain safeguards to protect those who lack requisite wordsmithing skills to avoid the heartburn associated with a meal of their own words.

First, courts have clarified that this rule should be applied with caution.  United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. Carr, 242 S.W.2d 224 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 1951).  Second, courts seem to indulge an initial presumption that such statements are quasi-admissions, not true judicial admissions, and, as such, some evidence, but not conclusive of the facts admitted.  Mendoza v. Fidelity & Guaranty Insurance Underwriters, Inc., 606 S.W.2d 6924 (Tex. 1980).  Only when a party’s statement satisfies each prong of the Texas Supreme Court’s five-prong test will a quasi-admission be elevated to the status of a formal judicial admission and bind the party making it:

1.  The declaration relied upon was made during the course of a judicial proceeding.  This appears to include deposition testimony, Adams v. Tri-Continental Leasing Corp., 713 S.W.152 (Tex. App. — Dallas 1986) (deposition testimony in that case held not to be a judicial admission due to conflict in the testimony), but not out-of-court statements made after suit was filed but prior to trial. American Baler Co. v. SRS Sys, Inc., 748 S.W.2d 243 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 1988).

2.  The statement is contrary to an essential fact embraced in the theory of recovery or defense asserted by the person giving the testimony.  The prong is fairly self-explanatory.  What it seems to suggest is that a party shouldn’t be put in peril of testifying himself out of court on matters that are merely tangential or non-essential.  Therefore, unless the admission goes to the heart of a party’s cause of action or defense, the statement will not bar a party from offering evidence contrary to their own testimony.

3.  The statement is deliberate, clear and unequivocal, and the hypothesis of mere mistake or slip of the tongue has been eliminated.  Most cases focus on this prong.  Unfortunately, they are few in number and most are decades old.  Nevertheless, these cases do provide some good examples of the type of testimony which has been held to be insufficiently “deliberate, clear and unequivocal”:

*          Opinion testimony by a party on matters which a lay person would not be qualified or competent to testify.  Mendoza at 694 (a plaintiff’s opinion about his own physical limitations).

*          Facts which are not peculiarly within the declarant’s own knowledge, but are mere impressions of a transaction or an event as a participant or an observer, especially when there is evidence to the contrary.  Gevinson v. Manhattan Construction Co., 449 S.W.2d 458, 466 (Tex. 1969) (a party’s sworn statement that the other party “foreclosed” on property).

*          Inexactitude in testimony.  Cranetex, Inc. v. Precision Crane & Rigging, 760 S.W.2d 298, 304 (Tex. App. — Texarkana, 1989) (“on or about” a certain date was equivocal as to the date); Bray v. McNeely, 682 S.W.2d 615 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 1984) (“I think so” was ambiguous).

4.  The giving of conclusive effect to the declaration will be consistent with the public policy upon which the rule is based.  There is little to no case law which addresses the application of this prong.  However, the Supreme Court has clearly articulated the public policy which underlies this rule, to wit:  that it would be unjust to permit a party to recover after he has sworn himself out of court by clear, unequivocal testimony.  Mendozaat 694.

5.  The statement is not also destructive of the opposing party’s theory of recovery.  This final prong simply embraces the general rule that applies to all admissions, i.e., that one party’s admissions cannot be used against other parties. Griffin v. Superior Insurance Co., 338 S.W.2d 415 (Tex. 1960).

Given the potential for a party testifying himself out of court, most attorneys should feel at least some degree of trepidation anytime they see their clients raise their hands to take the oath.  Worrisome as that may be, however, there is one thing that is even worse than having your client talk himself out of court.  And that’s when you do it for him.  In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at that.

–Judge Bonnie Sudderth, 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


Using Judicial Notice to Prove Facts

June 25, 2011

Rooted in the ancient maxim, manifesta non indigent probatione (that which is known need not be proved)  judicial notice is believed to be one of the oldest doctrines of common law.  Although archaic,  judicial notice today remains an extremely useful, yet often under-utilized, method of proof  in Texas courts.    

Not only is judicial notice an enormous time-saving device, it also carries with it strong evidentiary value, especially in the civil context, where a jury is instructed to accept as conclusive any fact judicially noticed and will hear no evidence to rebut it.  Texas Rules of Evidence 201(g), Edmund M. Morgan, Judicial Notice, 57 Harv. L. Rev. 269 at 279 (1944).  (In criminal cases, noticed facts are probative, but not conclusive.)

Judicial notice may be used to prove adjudicative facts (Rule 201), the laws of other states and foreign countries (Rules 202 & 203), as well as city ordinances and administrative agency rules and regulations (Rule 204).  In appropriate circumstances, the court is mandated to take judicial notice, and in many instances, judicial notice may occur sua sponte.  But in all circumstances, the rules require that the opposing side be given notice and an opportunity to be heard on the issue.

With regard to adjudicative facts, there are two types of judicial notice available:  notice of generally-known facts (TRE 201b[1]), and notice of facts capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned (Rule 201b[2]).  These two types of facts are quite different and distinguishable from one another.  For example, if the question at trial was whether the earth is round, as opposed to flat (as Flat Earth Society members still contend today), a court could take judicial notice under Rule 201b(1) that the earth is, in fact, round, because it is a fact generally known by persons of average intelligence and knowledge.  However, if more precision was necessary under the facts of a case, Rule 201b(2) would permit judicial notice to be taken that, in fact, the earth is NOT round, but an oblate spheroid, a fact not generally known, but nevertheless capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to reliable sources.

Even when judicial notice is employed, its scope and depth often remain untapped.  For example, few would hesitate to request judicial notice that the city of Fort Worth is located within Tarrant County.  But judicial notice can extend much further – certainly to the fact that a Starbucks is located in downtown Fort Worth on the west side of Houston Street between 3rd and 4th Streets, perhaps even to the fact that they sell beverages in three sizes:  tall, grande and venti.  Bender v. State, 739 S.W.2d 409 at 413 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th], 1987) (permitting judicial notice of the location of an MBank at a particular intersection inHouston).  The scope of judicial notice is not limited by level of detail, but by general knowledge and objective verifiability.

Another example of facts to which judicial notice should be taken are mathematical formulas, the laws of physics and other principles of natural forces, when supplied with necessary computations or information.  Drake v. Holstead, 757 S.W.2d 909 at 911 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 1988) (error found in a trial court’s refusal to take judicial notice of calculations of rates of speed, when supplied with mathematical computations to support it).  By invoking judicial notice in lieu of formal proof in these matters, an attorney can avoid at least two potentially unpleasant scenarios:  (1) putting a jury to sleep with tedious technical or scientific testimony, and, worse yet, (2) subjecting otherwise irrefutable evidence to debate, perhaps outright rejection, behind closed doors during jury deliberations. 

While judicial notice will cover matters such as the fact that there are twelve inches in a foot, it is not available for facts which are subject to reasonable dispute, such as the length of particular objects.  Brune v. Brown Forman Corp., 758 S.W.2d 827 (Tex. App. — Corpus Christi 1988).  This is a general rule, however.  Certainly the length of a football field or the dimensions of a 2005 Hummer H2 would both be ripe for judicial notice, because, again, they are capable of accurate and ready determination (or, in the case of the football field, generally known, at least within our own territorial jurisdiction). 

As a practical pointer, when judicial notice is sought on matters requiring reference to calculations, scientific treatises or the like, this is best heard in pretrial conference.  This will give the court an opportunity to consider whether these facts are the type to which judicial notice may be properly taken and/or whether necessary and adequate supporting information has been provided.  By scheduling the matter for hearing, all parties will be provided the requisite notice and an opportunity to be heard before the court takes judicial notice of the matter.  A ruling at the pretrial stage will also streamline case preparation and trial time by alleviating the burden of gathering and presenting evidence on matters which can be proved (conclusively!) through judicial notice.

– Judge Bonnie Sudderth, 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 194 other followers

%d bloggers like this: