Exceptions to the Best Evidence Rule

December 12, 2011

Best evidence is a lot like hearsay.  To understand the rule, you must understand the exceptions.  And, although the best evidence rule exceptions certainly aren’t as numerous as the hearsay exceptions, they are significant. 

There are five major exceptions to the best evidence rule, and they are found in Rule 1004 of the Texas Rules of Evidence.  Rule 1004, which codified existing state common law exceptions, specifically authorizes “other evidence” to prove the contents of a document[1] when the document (or its duplicate[2]):

  1. has been lost or destroyed;
  2. cannot be obtained;
  3. cannot be found in Texas;
  4. is in the possession of an opponent who fails to produce it; or
  5. is offered for a collateral purpose

(These Texas exceptions mirror the Federal Rules of Evidence, except that the federal rules contain no geographical exception equivalent to the third exception.)

 The importance of these exceptions can’t be overstated.  If an exception applies, then the best evidence rule no longer bars the use of secondary evidence to prove document contents.  In practical terms, this means that a witness may, through testimony alone, prove up the contents of a memo or a videotape, without ever tendering the memo or the videotape into evidence.  This is why it is so important to understand the exceptions, the applications and the limitations.

Lost or Destroyed:  This exception generally applies to inadvertent loss or destruction.  Under this exception, a claim that despite a reasonable and good faith effort to locate a document, it cannot be located may be sufficient to permit proof of the contents of a document through testimony or other secondary sources.  While the rule envisions accidental loss or destruction, even documents which have been intentionally destroyed may be proved up through secondary sources, assuming no bad faith on the part of the proponent. For example, in one federal case, the I.R.S. was able to use secondary proof of the contents of a taxpayer’s records, even though the agency itself had destroyed the records because the court found the destruction “negligent,” but not in bad faith.    

Not Obtainable:  This exception provides that secondary sources may be used to prove the contents of a document when it can’t be obtained by any available judicial procedure.  The exception is aimed at documents which are not in the possession of any party to the lawsuit which, despite reasonable efforts, simply cannot be obtained, either by informal persuasion or formal process.  Obviously, this exception would not apply to any document which could be obtained through subpoena duces tecum or deposition discovery subpoena. 

Not in Texas:  You don’t have to cross the Red River to look for documents.  As a practical matter, however, it may not be a bad idea to make the trip, since your opponent will not be precluded from doing so.  And if your opponent should obtain the document, then the exception would no longer apply.  In that event, the secondary source of evidence you planned to introduce at trial would now be inadmissible as violative of the best evidence rule, since the document would now be available in Texas.

Opponent Fails to Produce It:  This is an interesting rule which allows one party to put the other party on notice that proof of a particular document under the other party’s control[3] will be a subject of proof.  If, after being put on notice “by the pleadings or otherwise,” the other party does not produce the original, then secondary sources may be used to prove its contents.  One might wonder why this rule is necessary, given all of the discovery tools available today.  Since this exception applies to hearings as well as trials, it could be particularly useful in situations involving time constraints.  For example, when there is no time to obtain discovery prior to a hearing, or when outstanding discovery has been resisted, the contents of a document which has not yet been produced by the other side may be admissible, as long as adequate notice has been given.  Once on notice, then the other side has two choices:  (1) produce the document, or (2) face the secondary proof of its contents. 

Collateral Purposes:  This is perhaps the most important exception to the best evidence rule, and if an attorney can remember only one thing about the best evidence rule, this is it.  The best evidence rule does not apply when evidence is offered to prove something other than the contents of a document or when the contents do not relate to a controlling issue.  For example, the best evidence rule does not apply when the matter sought to be proven is not content, but notice, service or delivery of a document.   Likewise, if a heavy book falls off a shelf and injures a customer standing below, the best evidence doctrine does not require that the book be produced at trial, as the content of the book is a collateral matter. 

Summary: In this last series of three blogs, we have examined what the best evidence rule is and what it is not.  It is a rule which applies only to “documents” and testimony concerning the contents of documents.  It is a rule which allows a duplicate of any document to be just as admissible as the original, with a couple of narrow exceptions. 

What it is not is a rule which requires that the best witness be called or the best proof be offered at trial.  The application of the best evidence rule does not exclude evidence based on any type of qualitative assessment of the evidence as poor, good, better or best.  Its only aim is to insure accuracy of evidence under the premise that proof of the contents of a document should ordinarily come from the document itself.

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


[1] The term “document” includes writings, recordings or photographs.  TRE 1001.

[2] Originals and duplicates are used interchangeably here, because TRE 1003 elevates the status of a duplicate to that of an original, except under two narrow exceptions discussed in the last blog.

[3] Rule 1004 uses the word “control,” not merely possession.


Duplicates and the Best Evidence Rule

November 25, 2011

Your client has a perfectly legible photocopy of a deed, contract or other document, but despite a diligent effort to locate the original, it simply cannot be found.  In order to prevail, you know that that the contents of the original document must be proved at trial.  Can you overcome a “best evidence” challenge to the photocopy?  “Not bloody likely,” would have been the answer of the day in merry olde England.  In modern times, however, the prospects are substantially improved. 

For centuries, the common law best evidence rule provided that in order to prove the contents of a document, the original document must be produced in evidence at trial.  While this basic tenet still exists in Rule 1002 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the codified version of the best evidence rule, perhaps the most important aspect of the modern version appears in the last ten words of the rule:

To prove the content of a writing…the original…is required except as otherwise provided in these rules or by law.

And one need only look to the very next rule – TRE 1003 – to find an exception that some would argue swallows the rule. 

A duplicate is admissible to the same extent as an original unless (1) a question is raised as to the authenticity of the original or (2) in the circumstances it would be unfair to admit the duplicate in lieu of the original.

As codified, the best evidence rule provides no bar to the use of a duplicate instead of an original, except under two narrow circumstances: 

  1. when the original’s authenticity is questioned, or
  2. when unfairness would result.  

In practical terms, this means that any objection to the introduction of a duplicate in lieu of an original should either raise a question of authenticity or unfairness. 

A bare-bones “best evidence” objection would not be proper, as it would not apprise the court of the reason why the duplicate should be excluded. 

Allowing duplicates makes sense.  With modern-day reliance on highly-accurate document reproduction technology, including faxes and scanners, and in an era when even record custodians don’t necessarily retain records in their original form, the contents of most documents should be able to be satisfactorily proved without anyone having to actually touch the original.  Only when there is a legitimate question of whether the underlying document is authentic or whether it’s fair to rely on a duplicate should the original be required. 

Authentication:  Up until the end of the 20th century, authentication could pose a legitimate concern to an attorney who sought admission of a document at trial which had been obtained from the other side in discovery.  However, with the promulgation of Rule 193.7 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure in 1999, which provides that any document produced by a party in response to a discovery request is automatically authenticated for use against the producing party, these authentication problems have disappeared.  Now the only documents which need formal authentication are the documents which are obtained from other sources. 

Keep in mind, however, that the issue is not whether there’s a question as to the duplicate’s authenticity.  Only when a question is raised as to the authenticity of the original will the duplicate be disallowed.  At least one court has held that a duplicate of a self-authenticated document is admissible under Rule 1003.  Englund v. State, 946 S.W.2d 64 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997) (holding a facsimile of a certified copy of a court record was admissible).   Englund was decided on a peculiar set of facts (the fax was sent from the office which also provided the authentication), and the court certainly did not go so far as to hold that authenticity could never be challenged as to all duplicates of self-authenticated documents.  However, a very strict reading of Rule 1003 would support such an argument.

Unfairness.  Assuming no authentication issues, a claim of unfairness will provide the only remaining hurdle to admissibility of a duplicate in lieu of an original.  Unfortunately, this evidentiary point is rarely raised on appeal, so there is little to guide in its application.  In Ladd v. State, a criminal defendant did argue that poor-quality photos of a crime scene were unfair due to their failure to accurately depict the scene.  This argument did not meet with success, however.  The sponsoring witness’ testimony that the photos did fairly depict the scene was held sufficient to satisfy Rule 1003.  3 S.W.3d 547 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999).

Scope of RuleLadd v. State also demonstrates that when it comes to modern-day application of the best evidence rule, it’s not just about documents anymore.  Pursuant to Rule 1001, the best evidence rule applies to:

  • Writings and Recordings – consisting of “letters, words, or numbers or their equivalent, set down by handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, magnetic impulse, mechanical or electronic recording or other form of data compilation;” and
  • Photographs – consisting of “photographs, x-ray films, videotapes and motion pictures.” 

Given the broad scope of Rule 1001, using duplicates in lieu of originals pursuant to Rule 1003, would encompass using photocopies of original photographs, duplicate recordings of original DVDs, videotapes and audiotapes, and scanned images of x-ray films, etc.

Allowing for duplicates to be used instead of originals provides a significant exception to the original doctrine of best evidence.  But the exceptions don’t stop there.  Next time we’ll take a look at what to do when your client can’t even manage to find a duplicate.

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


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