Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Court Narrows Understanding of "Best Evidence" Rule

US v. Smith: Smith was charged with (among other things) being a felon in possession of firearms and possessing firearms in connection with a drug trafficking offense. At trial, the Government presented testimony from an ATF agent who explained that all the firearms were manufactured out of state (and therefore traveled in interstate commerce), based upon his review of ATF databases and written reference materials. Smith objected to that testimony, arguing that without entering the materials upon which the agent relied into evidence, allowing his testimony violated the best evidence rule of FRE 1002. The district court disagreed and allowed the testimony. Smith was convicted and sentenced to 197 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Smith's conviction. The court concluded that Smith's argument rested on a "misconception" of FRE 1002, namely that it required the Government to produce the "best evidence" of the information to which the agent testified. In fact, FRE 1002 is better understood as the "original document rule," as it is designed to require production of an original document "to prove the content" of it. The Government never sought to prove the contents of the materials upon which the agent relied, only that the firearms at issue moved in interstate commerce.

The Fourth Circuit did vacate Smith's sentence, as the district court employed a presumption of reasonableness for the Guidelines when it imposed sentence.

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