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Relevance And Prejudice

During trial, attorneys are required to practice and follow the rules of evidence while presenting their case to regulate what the jury can use to reach its verdict as a motorcycle accident lawyer knows all too well. The rules of evidence help to protect from unfair administration of legal proceedings, reduce costs and delays, and safeguard the jury from reaching a verdict due to an unrelated or misleading factor. In the United States, federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Evidence and state courts normally follow their own state rules. State rules of evidence often stem from the federal rules. Given the variations in state rules of evidence across jurisdictions, the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) will be used to explain the concept of relevance and the potential exclusion of relevant evidence due to unfair prejudice. 

Relevance (FRE 401)

The first threshold of introducing any piece of evidence at trial is to prove it is relevant under FRE 401. This rule sets a relatively low threshold. According to Rule 401, evidence is deemed relevant if: 

  1. It has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence, and 
  2. The fact in question is of consequence in determining the action. 

The phrase “of consequence” implies that the fact must be related to the cause of action but does not necessitate it to be a material fact. This definition is deliberately broad to ensure that the court considers a wide array of evidence. 

For example, consider a personal injury suit where the plaintiff is suing a grocery store for causing them injuries due to a slip and fall that occurred because the store was negligent in not cleaning up a spill. If the plaintiff’s attorney attempts to introduce a medical report indicating the plaintiff’s injury directly resulted from the incident, this would be deemed relevant as it makes it more probable that the defendant’s actions caused harm. On the other hand, the defendant’s attorney attempts to introduce evidence that the plaintiff had previously filed for bankruptcy several years before the incident. The introduction of the plaintiff’s past financial struggles does not make it more or less probable that the store was negligent, nor does it pertain to the severity of the plaintiff’s injuries from the slip and fall. Therefore, this evidence would be deemed irrelevant and would be inadmissible at trial. 

Prejudice (FRE 403)

While the judicial system favors admitting relevant evidence, FRE 403 introduces a caveat. Judges have the authority to exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice, confusion, misleading the jury, or causing unnecessary delays or wastefulness. 

For example, if the prosecution in a criminal trial wishes to introduce graphic photos of a murder scene, the court must weigh the photos’ value in proving the defendant’s guilt against the potential emotional impact on the jury. If the images are deemed excessively gruesome to the point where they might cloud the jury’s judgment, they may be excluded. Another illustration is the introduction of a defendant’s past criminal history in a trial for a new offense. While this information may suggest a pattern of behavior, it also risks prejudicing the jury against the defendant for past events rather than focusing on the current charges. 

The Federal Rules of Evidence balance the need for relevant evidence against the potential for unfair prejudice in legal proceedings. Understanding the nuances of Rules 401 and 403 is essential for lawyers to be able to introduce crucial evidence to support their claims at trial. The legal system applies these rules to conduct trials that are both fair and rooted in substantial, relevant evidence, ensuring that justice is served with integrity and due consideration. 

Thanks to Eglet Adams Eglet Ham and Henriod for their insight on Relevance and Prejudice.

If you are facing a legal situation, contact a lawyer near you who can help with things like relevancy in your situation.