California Landmark Cases on the Hearsay Rule

Hearsay evidence is inadmissible unless it falls within an exception to the general rule. (Evid. Code, 1200.) The rationale for the hearsay rule is that the out-of-court declarant: (1) was not under oath when he or she made the statement, (2) cannot be cross-examined by the adverse party to test perception, memory, clarity of expression and veracity, and (3) is not available, which affords the trier of fact no opportunity to observe the declarant's demeanor. (Chambers v. Mississippi (1973) 410 U.S. 284, 298, 35 L. Ed. 2d 297, 93 S. Ct. 1038, People v. Fuentes (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 956, 960-961.) An exception to the hearsay rule is recognized for declarations against interest. Evidence Code section 1230 provides: "Evidence of a statement by a declarant having sufficient knowledge of the subject is not made inadmissible by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness and the statement, when made, was so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far subjected him to the risk of civil or criminal liability, or so far tended to render invalid a claim by him against another, or created such a risk of making him an object of hatred, ridicule, or social disgrace in the community, that a reasonable man in his position would not have made the statement unless he believed it to be true." Declarations against interest, including declarations against penal interest, are admitted because they have a high degree of trustworthiness and are unlikely to be false. (People v. Spriggs (1964) 60 Cal.2d 868, 874.) Declarations against interest are recognized as an exception to the hearsay rule because of the "commonsense notion that reasonable people, even reasonable people who are not especially honest, tend not to make self-inculpatory statements unless they believe them to be true." (Williamson v. United States (1994) 512 U.S. 594, 599.) Although not determinative, the very fact that a statement is self-inculpatory is a substantial indication it is trustworthy. (Id. at p. 605.) The proponent of a declaration against penal interest must show (1) the declarant is unavailable, (2) the declaration was against the declarant's penal interest when made, and (3) the declaration was sufficiently reliable to warrant admission despite its hearsay nature. (People v. Lucas (1995) 12 Cal.4th 415, 462, 907 P.2d 373.) To determine whether the declaration passes the required threshold of reliability or trustworthiness, a trial court "may take into account not just the words but the circumstances under which they were uttered, the possible motivation of the declarant, and the declarant's relationship to the defendant." (People v. Frierson (1991) 53 Cal.3d 730, 745.) " 'The decision whether trustworthiness is present requires the court to apply to the peculiar facts of the individual case a broad and deep acquaintance with the ways human beings actually conduct themselves in the circumstances material under the exception. Such an endeavor allows, in fact demands, the exercise of discretion.' " (Ibid.)