One admissible evidence definition is that admissible evidence is any document, testimony, or tangible, physical item, e.g. a murder weapon, that can be used to prove a fact at issue in a hearing or trial in a court of law under the rules of evidence. 

Evidence is typically introduced to a judge or a jury to prove a fact that is an element of a case as follows:

  • Criminal Law: In criminal law, evidence is used in two ways, either to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or evidence is presented by the defendant to establish a defense to the crime charged;
  • Civil Law: In civil law, facts to establish the elements of a case must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, which is a lower standard than the one that applies in a criminal case, i.e., beyond a reasonable doubt. In certain special situations in a civil lawsuit, the standard of proof is clear and convincing” evidence of a fact or facts. This is a heavier, or more stringent, burden of proof than a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

Before any evidence is allowed to be presented to a judge or jury in a civil or criminal case, it must be considered “admissible”. Whether evidence is admissible or not depends on a number of factors that a court must analyze. Documents, testimony and physical items that are not acceptable per the rules of evidence are excluded and referred to as “inadmissible”. They are kinds of evidence that cannot be presented to the judge or the jury as proof of any fact at issue in the case.

One issue to determine early on is whether a person will have a hearing or trial in a federal court or in a state court. In federal courts, evidence is analyzed by judges applying the Federal Rules of Evidence. Each state has its own rules of evidence which apply in that state’s courts in both criminal and civil trials. 

In both state and federal courts, the rules of evidence are statements of law prescribing for parties and their lawyers how they can collect, present and apply evidence in hearings and trials. Parties to court proceedings and their lawyers should be guided in how they gather and use evidence by the rules of evidence that apply in the court in which they are working.

What Is the Difference Between Admissible Evidence and Inadmissible Evidence?

Evidence that is admissible is allowed to be presented to the judge or jury, whichever is deciding the case. The judge or jury may then consider whether the evidence is credible enough and sufficient to prove the fact which the evidence is presented to prove. If evidence is inadmissible, it cannot be presented to the judge or jury and cannot be used to prove any fact. 

Sometimes the same item of evidence is admissible for one purpose but not for another. A common example of this is hearsay evidence. Hearsay evidence is when a person testifies to what they or another person said at another time outside of court in some situation at issue in the case. For example, a witness to an auto accident might want to testify that the driver at fault said to them after the accident,  “Gee, I’m so sorry but I did not see that car in front of me. I was reading a text message.”  

The victim of the accident would like to present this witness’s testimony to prove that the other driver’s negligence caused the accident. However, the testimony cannot be admitted for that purpose. The testimony might be admitted to prove something else, but not the truth of what was said, i.e., that the driver caused the accident because they were reading a text message and not watching the car in front of them. The statement is hearsay, i.e., testimony by one person regarding what another person said offered to prove the truth of what was said..

Testimony by a witness to the accident to the effect that the witness saw the other driver looking at their cell phone while driving immediately before their car crashed into the car in front of them could be admitted to prove that the other driver’s negligence caused the accident. This testimony is not hearsay, i.e. not testimony of what one person heard another person say. It is testimony about what the witness saw. And it would be admissible for the purpose of proving the negligence of the driver who was reading and not paying attention to the road.

Or, suppose a prosecutor wants to admit the recording of a call to a police dispatcher. In the call, the defendant is heard on the phone telling the dispatcher,  “Please send an ambulance right away. I think I may have just killed a guest here at the Bates Motel in Fairvale.” The prosecutor wants to use this recording to prove that the defendant murdered a guest who had checked into the Bates Motel. The dispatcher has since passed away and is not available to testify, but a tape-recording of the call is available. 

The evidence would be inadmissible for that purpose, because it is hearsay. It might be admissible to prove why the dispatcher sent an ambulance to the Bates Motel that night, assuming that fact would need to be proven in the case. But it would not be admissible to prove that the defendant murdered a guest at the motel. 

There are other reasons for which evidence of this type might be admissible or inadmissible. Of course, there are exceptions to the hearsay rule, discussed below, as there are to every rule of evidence. The “excited utterance” exception to the hearsay rule is one of the exceptions that may operate to make this statement admissible to prove the defendant’s guilt.

The point is that any type of evidence, including hearsay, might be admissible for one purpose but not for another. In addition, decisions about evidence may not be at all simple. More than one rule may indicate that a certain item is inadmissible, while exceptions or other rules may indicate that it is admissible. Every item of evidence must be carefully analyzed.

What Are Some Factors for Determining If Evidence Is Admissible?

The general rule is that all relevant evidence is admissible and irrelevant evidence is inadmissible. So, to be admissible, every item of evidence must tend to prove or disprove a fact at issue in the case. If the evidence is not related to a fact at issue in a case, it is irrelevant and is, therefore, inadmissible. 

There are four basic types of evidence:

  1. Demonstrative: Demonstrative evidence is evidence that shows or demonstrates a fact at issue in the case. So, for example, a photograph of a damaged vehicle that was involved in a car accident would be demonstrative evidence. It shows how the accident affected the car involved in it.
  2. Documentary: Documentary evidence is simply documents that are relevant to an issue in a case. So, for example, in a case for breach of contract, the contract would be a necessary item of evidence.
  3. Real: Real evidence would be some actual object or thing relating to the case. So, for example, the actual bullet that was taken from the body of the victim of a shooting would be real evidence.
  4. Testimonial: Testimony is the statement of a witness who appears in court to tell what they know about the facts at issue in a case. 

What Are Some Factors for Determining If Evidence Is Admissible?

Generally speaking, the rules regarding the admissibility of evidence in civil proceedings are the same as the rules regarding the admissibility of evidence in criminal proceedings. There are, of course, as always, exceptions. 

One example is the doctrine of estoppel, a technical and complicated rule of evidence that applies only in civil proceedings. 

In criminal cases, there are special rules regarding confessions, because of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states that no person can be compelled in a criminal case to be a witness “against himself.” 

As a practical matter, this means that, before a confession can be admitted into evidence to prove the guilt of the defendant, the judge must hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant made the confession voluntarily. Of course, the jury is not allowed to be present during this hearing. A jury would never hear the confession, unless the judge decides that it was made voluntarily.

Another example is what is called “character evidence”. The Federal Rules of Evidence allow evidence of a person’s character or character trait to be admitted but not for the purpose of proving that on a particular occasion, the person conducted themselves consistently with the trait or character. There is a complicated set of exceptions that apply to character evidence regarding the defendant and the victim in criminal trials. The exceptions do not apply in civil trials. This is just one example of a difference in the rules of evidence for civil and criminal trials.

Different kinds of evidence are presented in civil trials and in criminal trials because of the different kinds of facts that need to be proven in the two different types of cases.  There is extensive law about eyewitness testimony and whether it is evidence that is reliable and can be trusted by a jury given the psychology of memory and its fallibility. This is because eyewitness testimony is often very critical in criminal cases when a person claims to have seen the perpetrator commit the crime. 

In civil cases, the authentication of documents is more often an issue as documents may be more important in proving the facts of the case. So whether a document is authentic and whether signatures on documents are authentic may be at issue in a civil case more often than in criminal trials. 

Still, generally speaking, the rules of evidence are the same for both civil and criminal trials.

What Are Some Factors That Determine Whether Evidence Is Inadmissible?

The rules of evidence present a complex field of law. There are rules and then exceptions to the rules and exceptions to the exceptions. In general though, evidence is more likely to be ruled inadmissible if it is:

  • Unfairly Prejudicial: Evidence that arouses the jury’s outrage without adding any material information is often excluded. For example, the picture of a victim’s body if it is especially gruesome is often judged to be unfairly prejudicial;
  • Wastes Time: In trials, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Juries do not have to hear from multiple witnesses to know that the defendant is a person of good character who is typically an honest, trustworthy person, or to prove any other fact
  • Misleading: Evidence that could lead the jury in the wrong direction and away from the main issues of the case are misleading and often excluded. For example, the defendant’s homosexuality in a child molestation case is misleading since the issue is whether the defendant had sex with a particular minor. The sexual identity of the defendant is irrelevant. It might also be prejudicial;
  • Hearsay: One person testifying about what another person said outside of court when used to prove the truth of what the other person said is hearsay. It is sometimes inadmissible. For example, suppose a witness claims that another witness said the defendant struck the victim with a knife and the prosecutor wants to use the testimony to prove that the defendant stabbed the victim. The testimony is considered hearsay. Because the prosecutor wants to use it to prove the truth of what was said. There are, however, over forty different exceptions to the hearsay rule; they define circumstances in which hearsay is admissible, such as the dying declaration exception. The hearsay rule and its exceptions is an especially complex area of the law of evidence.
  • Character Evidence: Evidence to prove that the defendant or the victim has a certain personality trait and that the defendant acted consistently with that personality trait is often excluded. The exception is if the defendant is the first to introduce character evidence.
  • Expert Testimony: Expert testimony can only be provided by qualified experts. The party who presents expert testimony must establish the expert’s qualification to testify to a particular issue, such as the standard of care for treatment of a particular medical issue in a medical malpractice lawsuit. The law regarding expert testimony, that is, who qualifies as an expert, how to prove their qualification and the subjects on which they can testify is another technical and complicated area of the law;
  • Privileges: Evidence is often excluded if it comes from a source that can claim a privilege, which is a right not to testify. Most of us are familiar with these privileges, i.e., the attorney-client privilege, the doctor-patient privilege, the minister-parishioner or priest-penitent privilege, and the spousal privilege. In public affairs, the executive privilege of the President of the United States is often at issue in a variety of legal situations. A privilege is a right of one party to the privileged relationship not to have to testify against the other party to the relationship. So an attorney cannot be compelled to testify against a client. There are exceptions to each privilege and just to complicate the issue further, privileges can be waived under certain circumstances

What If Evidence Is Considered Inadmissible?

If an item of evidence is considered inadmissible, it means that it cannot be used in court during a hearing or trial to prove a fact at issue in the case. An example of this is where a witness statement is considered irrelevant because it does not prove or disprove any fact in the case. In that case, the statement cannot be entered into the record as evidence and cannot be used by either party to prove or disprove a fact at issue. It would not be presented to a judge or jury.

Thus, it is very important to make sure that evidence is carefully reviewed and analyzed in preparation for a hearing or trial. This generally requires the assistance of an experienced  trial attorney in civil cases and a criminal defense attorney in a criminal trial, i.e., attorneys who have a good grasp of the rules of evidence for the court in which the proceeding takes place, whether state or federal. 

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Legal Issues Involving Admissible Evidence?

Clearly the rules of evidence are technical and complex. Building evidence for a case requires a lot of expertise. Evidence is one of the most important aspects of a criminal trial. If you need help with evidence issues, it is in your best interest to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Your attorney can provide you with professional legal advice and can represent you in court. 

In a civil case, it would be equally important to have an attorney who is well versed in the rules of evidence for civil hearings and trials. In any case in which you expect to have to present evidence in an important hearing or at a trial, it is strongly recommended that you consult a criminal defense or civil trial lawyer who has mastery of the rules of evidence.