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Hearsay — A Definition

Sarah Edwards | November 29, 2022

Sarah Edwards
Legal Expert
Sarah Edwards, BS

Sarah Edwards is a professional researcher and writer specializing in legal content. An Emerson College alumna, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from the prestigious Boston institution.

Edited by Hannah Locklear

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

Summary: In a legal context, hearsay occurs when a witness quotes information, usually from a third party, to prove a point without knowing if the information is 100% accurate or having witnessed the information firsthand.

Have you ever wondered what hearsay is? Hearsay is commonly used in a legal context, but you may also hear someone use it to describe gossip. Understanding hearsay in a legal context can help you if you ever find yourself involved in judicial proceedings.

What is hearsay?

Hearsay involves repeating something you heard from a third party about someone else while under oath in a court case.

Let’s look at an example.

Example: Consider a witness named Anna. A prosecutor asks Anna to testify concerning Jim’s whereabouts. Anna tells the court that Tina told her that Jim was in Miami, Florida, working as a waiter. Unfortunately, Tina isn’t available to confirm Anna’s statement. The court dismisses Anna’s testimony since Tina isn’t part of the legal proceedings, and Anna didn’t directly hear the information from Jim. The court may allow Anna’s statements if Tina is available for cross-examination at the trial. If Tina is another witness, the court would likely ask her to confirm Anna’s account before allowing it as evidence.

What are examples of hearsay?

One example of hearsay is the police report following a personal injury lawsuit for a car accident. Police officers talk to everyone involved in a car accident before completing their report. Since the statements aren’t coming from the individuals, the court will find the report hearsay in many jurisdictions.

Another example of hearsay is an email asserting certain statements made by someone else. For instance, if Jane sends an email to Bob and talks about Tammy’s comments made to her, the court would consider the email hearsay. The only way the court could retain the email as evidence is if Tammy was available for cross-examination.

What are some exceptions to the hearsay rule?

Most courts will not admit any evidence considered hearsay unless it qualifies for a hearsay exception. Several exceptions exist that the court will consider before accepting the evidence.

Each state has its own rules concerning hearsay evidence. Thus, if you’re involved in a legal case concerning hearsay, your lawyer will carefully consider the state’s rules if they choose to put forth evidence considered hearsay.

One example of a hearsay exception is an admission against interest. Under admission against interest rules, the court considers statements made by a party before anyone knew of a potential lawsuit to likely be true.

For instance, if someone says to a friend, “I like to sneak into houses, hide in the closet, and surprise people when they come home,” it’s likely to be admissible as evidence. The court will likely lean toward accepting the statement as accurate since the individual made it before the idea of a lawsuit became known.

What is an excited utterance?

An excited utterance is another example of hearsay that may be allowed in court. For instance, when someone calls 911, they’re likely speaking the truth — something happened that caused them to call for emergency services.

A judge will likely allow their recorded 911 call into evidence if the case goes to trial.

Can business records and public records qualify for a hearsay exception?

Yes, any business or public records can qualify for a hearsay exception. Business records can include hospital records, inventory statements, utility bills, financial statements, or other documents. Public records include birth certificates, marriage certificates, police records, and further details.

Any records requested in a hearing or trial must receive approval from the judge before being admitted as evidence. In most jurisdictions, you’ll need to get certified copies of the records from the business. You can’t simply just print out a copy from your computer and provide it as documentation.

How do statements for medical diagnosis or treatment work?

If you make a statement to a doctor or another healthcare professional concerning symptoms you’re experiencing from an illness or accident, your words may be admissible in a trial.

For instance, if you’re in an ambulance on your way to the hospital for treatment from a gunshot wound, and you tell emergency services that your ex-boyfriend shot you while outside your home, the statement will likely qualify for a hearsay exception.

Hearsay is confusing. How do I know what’s admissible and what’s not?

If you’re involved in court proceedings that will result in a trial, it’s best to allow your lawyer to sort out what evidence is hearsay and what evidence may qualify for an exception to the rule. They have the qualifications and experience to determine whether your evidence is admissible in court.

Remember that each state’s rules concerning hearsay vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Your lawyer will carefully assess your local court’s rules before deciding what evidence they can use.

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