Dedicated to the pursuit of justice

Is a police report admissible as evidence in a civil trial?

March 30, 2022 Blog,Head/Brain Injury

by Eric Ganci

If there is a car accident or crash, you are injured from that crash, and there is a police report of the crash: can that police report or traffic collision report come into a civil trial as evidence?

I’ll say the typical legal answer: “it depends.” Then I’ll say this blog comes from the 3/10/22 California decision Doe v. Brightstar Residential Incorporated, cited right now as 2022 WL 714127.

First, we need to understand California Vehicle Code section 20013 regarding police “accident reports” as evidence: “No such accident report shall be used as evidence in any trial, civil or criminal, arising out of an accident, except that the department shall furnish upon demand of any person who has, or claims to have, made such a report or upon demand of any court, a certificate showing that a specified accident report has or has not been made to the department solely to prove a compliance or failure to comply with the requirement that such a report be made to the department.”

And then let’s take one further step back from CVC 20013. A larger step back.

We have various types of trials, and different laws apply. Usually for criminal trials, the police report is not admitted as evidence. This is usually because the person criminally accused has the right to confront the accusers, and the police report against the accused may violate that person’s Constitutional 6th Amendment right to confront those accusing the accused. From Brightstar Residential Incorporated: “[i]n criminal cases, confrontation clause issues can block the admission of police report evidence.”

However, civil cases differ from criminal cases in many ways.

Here’s an example from the type of law I practice: there is a car collision, you suffer a brain injury (I focus on TBI cases), and you sue the Defendant driver’s insurance company for your injuries. This is considered a civil case, not criminal.

If the case is just civil, the Confrontation Clause may not apply. And here’s a statement from a 1930’s influential decision on whether to admit police reports: “It is true police reports are often inadmissible. Johnson v. Lutz (1930) 253 N.Y. 124, 127–129.

Back to Brightstar: there are a few considerations for admitting a police report into evidence. And usually it revolves around hearsay. “In civil and criminal cases, police reports are inadmissible when they contain improper multiple hearsay.” “Police accident and arrest reports are usually held inadmissible because they are based on the narrations of persons who have no business duty to report to the police.” Brightstar quoting the case Alvarez v. Jacmar Pacific Pizza Corp. (2002) 100 Cal.App.4th 1190, 1204–1206.

So the police officer writing report is one level of hearsay. But the “official records exception” to public officers makes the report admissible regarding this: “The official records exception to the hearsay rule is based on the presumption that public officers properly perform their official duties. When public officers have a duty to make accurate statements about facts within their official cognizance, the great probability is that this incentive will prompt them to work correctly, which creates the trustworthiness that justifies acceptance of the hearsay statement.”

But there’s another step of statements made by other persons within the police report.

Ye Olde Double Hearsay. Brightstar gives this example: “An example of a fatal double hearsay problem would be if Witness tells Person X about Fact Y, and Person X writes a report stating, ‘Witness said Fact Y.’ The report’s account of what Witness told Person X is first-level hearsay. Person X’s written report is second-level hearsay: the written report is an out-of-court statement offered for its truth.” ‘If a court admitted Person X’s report for its truth, both Witness and Person X could escape cross-examination without any sign the hearsay was trustworthy. That result is what the hearsay rule aims to avoid.”

However, “[d]ouble hearsay is admissible if a justification for admitting the evidence rebuts the hearsay objection at each level.” See California Evidence Code § 1201.

For this second layer of hearsay, there may be exceptions, such as the admission of a party opponent discussed in Brightstar. There of course is the possible analysis as to whether the statement in the police report is hearsay at all (ie. admitting for its truth).