Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
McGarth v. Mance, 194 Kan. 640, 400 P.2d 1013 (1965).
This case addresses the following issue:
Is it a reversible error to admit a police report over a hearsay objection?
In this case, the court admitted a police report into evidence over the hearsay objection of the Plaintiff. Id. at 641. The court held that admitting the report, even solely as impeachment evidence, was improper. Id. at 642. A police report is rarely proper evidence because it is hearsay and contains statements which “deal with the very question of negligence which the jury is impaneled to try.” Id. at 641.
The lawsuit here arose from an accident in Kansas City, Kansas. Id. at 640. An officer reported to the scene of the accident shortly after it occurred. Id. at 642. The officer had not witnessed the accident, but instead was working from interviews with witnesses, including the parties themselves. Id. The report noted that Plaintiff was at fault for the accident because of her “inattention” and “improper start from a parked position.” Id. The officer used the report to refresh his recollection while he testified. Id. at 641. The report was then admitted into evidence on cross-examination, over a hearsay objection by the Plaintiff. Id.
The admissibility of police reports was not a new issue for the court in this case. Id. at 641. The court noted three recent decisions dealing with this same issue. Id. These decisions had all come to the same conclusion regarding police reports: they aren’t very good evidence. Id. First, police reports will almost always be hearsay—statements made out-of-court and offered to prove what they claim is true. Id. In this case, the report was being offered to prove that Plaintiff was at fault, which is precisely what the report noted. Id. at 642. Further, the officer had not actually witnessed any of the facts contained in the report, making these statements “double hearsay.” Id.
Aside from hearsay problems, police reports are problematic because they often attempt to answer the exact questions before the jury: who caused an accident? Id. at 641. This can quickly confuse a jury, particularly if care isn’t take to explain the hurried nature under which such reports are made and how little investigation is generally done to generate a report. Id. Thus, the risk of misuse by a jury will almost always outweigh any evidentiary value the report offers. Id. at 641-42. This is particularly true when, as here, the officer is available to testify in person about the accident. Id. at 642.
Having found that admitting the report was an error, the court had to determine if this error warranted a new trial. Id. The court note that the report went to the ultimate issue of the case and the verdict had used the precise language that the report had used. Id. This was sufficient evidence to justify a new trial, which the court ordered. Id.