Alejandro Figueroa | January 27, 2021 | Car Accidents
Many people believe that a police officer’s determination of whether a driver contributed to the cause of a traffic accident is evidence in a trial. However, a crash report may or may not be admissible in a trial. Furthermore, the police officer’s opinions regarding fault may or may not be admissible.
The key is whether the information to be admitted is considered hearsay. There are exceptions to the hearsay rule that may allow a crash report to be admissible as a business record when specific requirements are met. However, the matter can be challenging, with some court decisions about whether the police report was admissible at trial being overturned on appeal.
What is in a Crash Report?
When you call 911 to report a car accident in New York, a police officer responds and completes a crash report. The crash report contains a variety of standard information about the accident, such as:
- The date, time, and location of the accident
- Weather, roadway, and lighting conditions at the time of the accident
- The names and addresses of each driver involved in the accident
- Information regarding the identity of passengers, witnesses, and others involved in the accident
- A description of each vehicle involved in the crash
- Violations of traffic laws
- Probable or contributing causes of the accident
- Description of damage to each vehicle
The police officer may also include other information in the crash report. Additional information in some crash reports includes diagrams of the accident, photographs, witness statements, and the officer’s opinion about who was at fault for the cause of the collision.
The accident report also contains the police officer’s name and badge number and the law enforcement agency employing the police officer.
Hearsay and Crash Reports
One of the problems with admitting a crash report is that it may contain hearsay. Hearsay is generally defined as statements made by people who are not in the courtroom to testify as to the validity of the statement.
For example, an unnamed witness tells the police officer that the driver who caused the accident ran a stop sign. Unfortunately, the witness cannot be located to testify at court. The officer did not witness the accident, so the statement to the officer becomes hearsay.
Rarely do police officers investigating an accident and completing a police report witness the collision. They must rely on personal observations and statements made by witnesses and drivers.
When Can a Crash Report Be Admissible in Court?
There is an exception that allows a crash report to be admitted in court. Under New York Civil Practice Law and Rules §4518, an accident report can be admissible as evidence at trial under the hearsay exception for business records. The report is admissible, provided it is based on the police officer’s observations while carrying out his duties as a police officer.
For example, if an officer smelled alcohol or marijuana when questioning a driver, that information may be admissible because it is based on the police officer’s observations. Likewise, a diagram of the accident scene might be admissible if the officer drew the diagram based on personal observations.
However, if the officer bases his assumption that the driver was impaired because of a witness statement, or if the vehicles had been moved before the officer arrived, the information in the crash report would be inadmissible.
There could be other exceptions to the hearsay rule that would allow witness statements contained in a crash report. For example, a statement by a witness who has personal knowledge and is under a business duty to report that knowledge could be admissible.
The party seeking to admit information from the crash report at trial has the burden of proving that a statement or information falls under the business records exemption or another hearsay exemption.
Proving Fault for a Car Accident
In most cases, there is other evidence available to prove fault for a car accident other than the crash report. A car accident lawyer might be able to locate videos from surveillance or traffic cameras. Witnesses may be subpoenaed to provide testimony in court about their personal observations.
In some cases, a lawyer might hire an accident reconstructionist and other experts to analyze the crash to determine how it happened. Expert testimony is allowed in court when the party establishes that the person testifying is an expert in a specific field.
How Can You Protect Yourself After a Car Accident?
Call 911 to report the accident immediately. Try to take pictures and make a video of the accident scene before vehicles are moved. If there are witnesses, ask for their names and contact information because they could leave without talking to the police officer.
Do not discuss the accident with anyone other than the police officer and your lawyer. Anything you say could be used against you in court if your testimony changes even slightly.