Improperly Admitting Hearsay can still be Harmless Error
I have discussed the hearsay rule (the evidentiary exclusionary rule and the numerous exceptions) ad nauseam and will continue to do so because it is such an important aspect of a civil trial. There will invariably be an objection under the hearsay rule during trial. The trial court will either sustain the objection or overrule the objection, perhaps under an exception to the hearsay rule.
What if a trial court makes a mistake—it happens—and overrules a hearsay objection and admits hearsay evidence? As previously mentioned, an appellate court will review the admission of evidence under an abuse of discretion standard of review, limited by Florida’s rules of evidence.
In Johnson v. State, 2016 WL 446889 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016)—yes, a criminal case—a defendant argued that the trial court erred in overruling a hearsay objection and admitting hearsay evidence / testimony. During the trial, the defendant objected when the responding police officer was asked to testify how the victim and the victim’s friend described the defendant. The trial court overruled this objection and the officer was allowed to testify. The appellate court correctly found that this testimony was hearsay as it was offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted–that the defendant was involved in the crime. There was not a hearsay exception that would otherwise allow the officer to recount the victim and the victim’s friend’s description of the defendant.
Unfortunately for the defendant, the trial court’s error was harmless. So, yes, the trial court erred by allowing the officer to offer hearsay testimony, but the error was deemed harmless error. If the error is harmless, then the appellate court will affirm the trial court. Remember, just because a trial court commits error during the course of the trial does not mean the error will result in a new trial or a reversal.
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