best evidence rule

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The best evidence rule applies when a party wants to admit the contents of a writing, recording, or photograph at a trial, but that the original is not available. In the event that the original is unavailable, the party must provide a valid reason why.  If the original document is not available, and the court finds the reason provided acceptable, then the party is allowed to use secondary evidence to prove the contents of the document and have it as admissible evidence. The best evidence rule only applies when a party seeks to prove the contents of the document sought to be admitted as evidence. The best evidence rule provides that the original documents must be provided as evidence, unless the original is lost, destroyed, or otherwise unobtainable. According to the definitions in the Federal Rules of Evidence, writing is “letters, words, numbers or their equivalent set down in any form.” Recordings and photographs are defined similarly. 

The best evidence rule only applies when the party that offers evidence is trying to prove the content of the writing, recording, or photographic evidence, but does not apply when a party is only seeking to prove an event; see Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 1004. For example, a witness may testify that they provided payment without entering a receipt for the payment into evidence. In such a case, the witness is not trying to prove what the receipt says, but simply testifying that they made a payment. Although the payment could also be proven by having the receipt as evidence, the best evidence rule does not require the receipt to be entered.

Since most information is stored electronically, the original of an electronically stored piece of evidence includes an archive or printout of that information. When a party would like to enter a series of emails into evidence, they can print out the emails and use the printout as an original for satisfying the best evidence rule.

In addition, duplicates of written, recorded, or photographic evidence are also admissible in court unless a genuine question is raised about the authenticity of the original or it is unfair to admit the duplicates due to the specific circumstances. See Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 1003. For instance, a party can enter a copy of a lease contract in a landlord-tenant dispute. However, if the opposing party claims that the copy of the lease contract provided is fraudulent, the best evidence rule requires that the original lease contract must be produced in such a scenario.

Whether a proponent has met the requirement for “admitting other evidence of the content of a document” is determined by the court. In a jury trial, however, the jury determines the following issues: “i) An asserted writing, recording, or photograph ever existed; ii) Another writing, recording, or photograph produced at trial is the original; or iii) Other evidence of content correctly reflects the content.” See Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 1008.

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]