Monday, December 12, 2011

Police Report and Officer Testimony Admissibility in Indiana

Whenever you are involved in a truck accident a police report is typically created by an investigating officer. This report is made by an officer who is only at the scene after the accident occurs. He or she interviews witnesses, takes down information about the accident itself, and may or may not make a conclusion as to who caused the accident and/or issue a citation to the person that he or she concludes was at fault.

As you can imagine, the conclusions of a police officer as to who caused an accident can be quite persuasive to a jury, convincing them a defendant caused the accident, or conversely that it was plaintiff’s fault and he or she should not receive damages from the defendant. Therefore, there is often litigation concerning whether the police report, the conclusions it draws, and the investigating officer’s testimony, are admissible evidence in a truck accident lawsuit, and what each side argues is typically related to who the officer says caused the accident.

Investigative Reports by Police and Law Enforcement Personnel Are Hearsay

Although a general exception to Indiana’s hearsay rule is for public records and reports Indiana Rule of Evidence 803(8)(a) makes an exception to the exception, declaring that “investigative reports by police and other law enforcement personnel” are still hearsay. That means that these accident reports, and the evidence they contain, are typically not admissible into evidence in Indiana.

However, the investigative officer is often called to testify in car and truck accident lawsuits, meaning that there are typically some parts of the officer’s testimony which are admissible. Below are some examples of the types of things an officer can testify about, and what he cannot. What follows discusses some general rules of law, but there are always exceptions and factual distinctions between cases which could result in a different outcome. This is especially true in evidentiary law, some of which is based on the discretion of the court regarding the issue of undue prejudice, which is why an experienced truck accident attorney should be consulted.

Officer Can Testify As To Observations He or She Made At Accident Scene but Generally Not the Cause of the Accident If They Didn’t Observe It Personally

One of the reasons courts have given for not allowing an officer to testify about the issue of causation, i.e., who caused an accident, is because they did not typically observe the accident themselves. Typically, investigative officers come to the scene of the accident only after it has occurred, and rely on eye witness statements to make their conclusions. That is exactly what a jury is supposed to do, so since they didn’t actually see it themselves police officers aren’t generally allowed to share their conclusion about who caused the accident, or how the accident occurred.

On the other hand, an investigating officer is often asked to testify about what he did observe at the scene of the accident as a neutral third party. This can include the position of the vehicles and other post-accident information. In addition, there may be questions about observations the officer made of the injured parties, and what they said about how they felt right after the accident, such as any complaints of pain and in what areas of their body.

Often statements of the witnesses are considered hearsay, and the officer cannot testify about them. However, there are quite a number of exceptions to this hearsay rule, and if one applies an officer may testify as to those statements too. One of the most common of these include when a person admits fault for an accident. Since this an admission against interest, and a statement by a party opponent, it is not considered hearsay at all and an officer can testify about what a party said on this subject.

Sometimes Police Officers Can Be Qualified As an Expert and Provide Conclusions about Causation

There is one exception, when an officer is qualified as an expert witness, when he or she is able to testify as to his or her conclusions about who caused the accident. Typically, the court will consider the officer’s years of experience and any training he has had in accident reconstruction in determining whether he can be qualified, and it is in no way guaranteed that all officers will qualify.

If a police officer does qualify as an expert witness he can provide opinions as to the ultimate issue of fact before the jury – who caused the accident. Typically, the opinions of the police officer as an expert cannot be based solely on witness statements, because a jury can decide based on those statements without a police officer’s opinion. Instead, the police officer’s expert opinion must be based on more, such as his own observations at the accident scene, such as by examining the skid marks, the weather and light conditions right after the accident, etc. This information, plus his knowledge of accident reconstruction, can allow in some instances for him to testify as to who he believed caused the accident to occur.

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