Use of 911 Calls in Court

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 Use of 911 Calls in Court Against Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a horrible crime, and because of its peculiar character (where an offender and a victim live together), prosecutions are very difficult.

Women might feel afraid to testify against dangerous males who, even if convicted, will be released and able to inflict retribution on them and their children. This is why so many domestic abuse cases fail; the victims do not attend court or file charges.

Admissibility of 911 Calls in Domestic Violence Cases

Out-of-court utterances, including recorded 911 calls, are admissible as evidence in certain situations, including domestic abuse criminal trials, according to the United States Supreme Court, and do not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.

Can the 911 Call Made by the Victim Be Used as Evidence?

In a 2006 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the admission of a 911 call into evidence.

Before this judgment, admitting these phone conversations when the victim did not present in court was challenging. This is due to the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, which allows a criminal defendant the opportunity to face witnesses against him.

If a call was let in, but the victim who made the recording was not accessible for cross-examination by the defendant’s counsel, the defendant’s right to a fair trial was violated.

However, the Court has now established explicit standards to evaluate whether certain calls are let in.

So Not All 911 Calls Will Be Allowed as Evidence?

No, only calls judged “not testimonial” in nature are admissible as evidence.

A call is considered “non-testimonial” when made during a police interrogation under the circumstances, objectively suggesting that the major goal of the questioning is to allow police assistance to handle an ongoing emergency.

On the other hand, a statement is “testimonial,” where the facts objectively suggest that there is no such continuing urgency, and the major goal of the questioning is to establish or prove previous occurrences possibly relevant to subsequent criminal prosecution.

So, what does it all mean?

Essentially, suppose the call is made “in the time” of the assault, and the victim describes the abuse (and the attacker) to provide the operator (and police) with a clear picture of the incident. In that case, this is NOT testimonial in character and will be admitted.

Non-Testimonial Example
A lady dials 911 and reports that her husband has assaulted her, threatened her children, and is currently damaging things in the living room.

When the guy notices her dialing 911, he escapes, and the caller informs the operator of his whereabouts.

Because this would be a non-testimonial call (describing current events to assist police in dealing with an emergency), everything she mentioned, including identifying the perpetrator, would be admissible in court.

As a result, even if she does not appear in court, the prosecution may use the film to get a conviction.

Testimonial Example
A lady dials 911 and tells the operator that her husband struck her in the face twenty minutes ago and then fled the home.

The lady is not immediately in danger, and any description of the individual she offers will be used to establish facts relevant to criminal prosecution, not to assist authorities with an ongoing emergency. This phone conversation would not be admissible as proof.

Remember that these differences only apply if the witness in issue (the one who called 911) fails to appear in court. Any calls she made, regardless of their testimonial character, are entirely permissible if she does appear.

The Three-Pronged Test

For a 911 recording to be admissible in a court proceeding, it must meet these three requirements:

  1. The circumstances indicate the declarant’s comments were made sincerely and spontaneously
  2. The 911 call is made within a reasonably short time after the incident so that the declarant has not had time to premeditate their statement
  3. The 911 call is made during a serious occurrence, and the declarant is in a state of physical shock or nervous excitement

Practical Example of 911 Calls in Court

In practice, what does this mean? A recent Harris County, Texas case serves as a good example.

A 15-year-old boy called 911 and said his father, the defendant, had physically assaulted his mother.

Two further 911 calls were made, one by the alleged victim and one by the son, before a Houston Police Department officer came to investigate.

During each of the three 911 calls, the operator asked a variety of questions, including if any weapons were used in the attack and whether the defendant had any mental-health concerns that the police should be aware of.

At the defendant’s later trial, the jury saw all of the 911 calls. The arresting cops were the sole witnesses for the prosecution. Neither the defendant’s kid nor his wife appeared in court.

The defendant was found guilty of misdemeanor assault on a family member by the jury. The Texas First District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and imprisonment.

According to the appeals court, the 911 calls were made to enable police or medical help to handle an ongoing emergency.

As a result, the statements of the wife and son were not testimonial, and the defendant had no constitutional right to cross-examine them.

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Example

The second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, was perhaps one of the most well-known instances in which the prosecution utilized 911 calls.

George Zimmerman made over fifty 911 calls in the eight years preceding Martin’s death, complaining about anything from open garage doors to slow-moving automobiles in his gated Florida community.

Prosecutors tried to use the conversations as proof of Zimmerman’s mental state before the alleged murder.

According to Judge Debra Nelson, only five calls could be aired in court.

Prosecutors used these calls to characterize Zimmerman as a vigilante with ill intent against largely black individuals who wandered in or near his neighborhood daily.

They said that Zimmerman specifically targeted Trayvon Martin the night he was slain.

In July 2013, Zimmerman was declared not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in a surprise judgment.

In a Domestic Battery Case, What Is the Prosecutor’s Mindset?

To put it simply, the prosecutor considers themselves to be the parent.

If the children (defendant and victim) cannot get along, the parent may be forced to intervene.

The prosecutor will consider the victim’s desires for prosecution, although this is just a minor part of the issue. The prosecutor will assess if the case can be proved and whether it should be presented.

The case is more likely to be filed if there are injuries or a history of police involvement. The prosecutor will attempt to determine if the court system should compel the victim and defendant to seek assistance and manage the issue.

Do I Need an Attorney?

If you are the victim of domestic violence or are concerned about testifying during your abuser’s trial, contacting an attorney who specializes in abuse may help assuage your anxieties, inform you of your choices, and perhaps show you how to secure a restraining order.

If you are accused of domestic abuse, you should immediately consult a family lawyer to preserve your legal rights and learn more about 911 calls and rules of evidence.

Many folks are included to wait for a court summons. This is the most serious error you can make.

If you do not take action, you will forfeit your greatest opportunity of having the lawsuit dismissed.

Having a lawyer plan your defense strategy throughout the investigative process can significantly boost your chances of having the case dismissed.

In every instance, you aim to persuade the prosecutor to abandon the case without bringing a formal charge. Who is advocating for you if you sit back and wait for a court date? No one? Who is your public defender?

If you do not engage a criminal defense counsel, the prosecution will only hear one side of the story—what the officers tell them. So, get a lawyer even if it means spending money you don’t want to spend.


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