Presumption of Judicial Regularity Is Fundamental to Bench Trials
In Harris v. Rivera, 454 U.S. 339, 102 S. Ct. 460, 70 L. Ed. 2d 530 (1981), the United States Supreme Court recognized that the presumption of judicial regularity is fundamental to bench trials.
"In bench trials, judges routinely hear inadmissible evidence that they are presumed to ignore when making decisions." Id. at 346 (holding that apparent inconsistency in a trial judge's verdict did not give rise to an inference of irregularity in his finding of guilt that was sufficiently strong to overcome the well-established presumption that the judge adhered to basic rules of procedure);
See also Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 749, 767, 49 S. Ct. 471, 73 L. Ed. 938 (1929) ("Where the court decides the fact and the law without the intervention of a jury, the admission of illegal testimony, even if material, is not of itself a ground for reversing the judgment . . . . If evidence appears to have been improperly admitted, the appellate court will reject it, and proceed to decide the case as if it was not in the record." (quoting United States v. King, 48 U.S. 833, 854, 12 L. Ed. 934 (1849))).
However, as this is principally a state law issue, it is necessary to analyze decisions from Florida courts.
Beginning with the precedent of this Court, the decision in Prince v. Aucilla River Naval Stores Co., 103 Fla. 605, 137 So. 886 (Fla. 1931), established the deference an appellate court should afford a trial judge's ability to segregate inadmissible evidence from consideration in the case.
This Court stated:
Errors as to the admission and rejection of evidence have not been shown to have injuriously affected the rights of the complaining party, especially since the case was not tried before a jury, where irrelevant or immaterial testimony may sometimes be highly prejudicial to a fair consideration of the facts by untrained minds of jurors who might thereby be misled into rendering a verdict on testimony which should have little or no consideration as of evidentiary value. Id. at 886.
The Prince decision recognized that trial court judges are deemed to have the training to disregard and not be improperly prejudiced by inadmissible evidence.
More than twenty years later, this Court again considered alleged errors in the admission of certain evidence and held that "in cases tried by the Judge without a jury the Judge is in a position to evaluate the testimony and discard that which is improper or which has little or no evidentiary value." First Atlantic Nat'l Bank of Daytona Beach v. Cobbett, 82 So. 2d 870, 871 (Fla. 1955);
See also Adan v. State, 453 So. 2d 1195, 1197 n.1 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984) (citing this principle to review whether a trial court erred in not granting a mistrial after a state witness testified that the defendant was in custody for an unrelated charge of burglary when he was questioned by an officer concerning a murder).
This Court examined the record in First Atlantic and concluded that the trial judge properly evaluated the testimony and that the objectionable evidence did not "injuriously or harmfully affect appellant when considered and evaluated by an experienced trial Judge." 82 So. 2d at 872;
See also Perez v. State, 452 So. 2d 107, 107 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984) (applying First Atlantic to determine that technical error in admitting hearsay testimony was harmless).