Monday, July 22, 2019

The rule of completeness - how it applies in the real world

One way to ensure that your statements are not introduced before a jury out of context is to allow the jury to hear the entire statement. Lawyers like to cherry-pick statements from the opposing party in trying to prove their cases. But if they leave out the rest of the story, the courts will bring in the entire statement. This case shows that the so-called "rule of completeness" has its limits.

The case is United States v. Williams, issued on July 9. I wrote about this case at this link, dealing with the scope of the police department's inventory search which revealed a gun stowed away in a secure compartment of a rental car. The Court held the inventory search did not violate the Fourth Amendment even though it was the second inventory search of the evening. The second search was prompted by defendant's freak-out when he learned the police were going to return the car to the rental people.

A second issue in the appeal involves Williams' claim that the trial court should have allowed the jury to know that he initially denied the gun was his before he eventually 'fessed up. As it happens, Federal Rule of Evidence 106 addresses the rule of completeness, but it only mentions written statements, not oral statements. But the common law applies that rule to oral statements. Why doesn't Rule 106 cover oral statements as well? I have no idea. Maybe the committee that drafted the rule had their eye on the clock and it was almost time to go home for the weekend.

After initially ruling that the rule of completeness allows a party to introduce hearsay evidence to place the one-sided comment in context, the Court of Appeals (Kearse, Livingston and Carney) says the trial court did not abuse its discretion in preventing Williams from introducing his initial denial about the gun ownership before the jury. The rule is that defendant had to "demonstrate that admission of the initial statements denying ownership of the gun was 'necessary to explain' his later statements that the gun was his, to place [these statements] in context, to avoid misleading the jury, or to ensure fair and impartial understanding' of these later statements." The Court says Williams is trying to take the doctrine too far, reasoning:

It is not uncommon for a suspect, upon interrogation by the police, to first claim n a self-serving manner that he did not commit a crime, only thereafter to confess that he did. But the rule of completeness does not require the admission of self-serving exculpatory statements in all circumstances, and the mere fact that a suspect denies guilt before admitting it, does not -- without more -- mandate the admission of his self-serving denial. As the district court here aptly pointed out, Williams' confession was 'simply a reversal of his original position."

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