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California Supreme Court Clarifies Hearsay Restrictions under People v. Sanchez

Trial practitioners are well-aware of the paradigm shift caused by the California Supreme Court’s ruling in People v. Sanchez (2016), 63 Cal. 4th 665. Sanchez changed decades of expert witness testimony practice, holding that an expert witness can no longer testify about “case -specific facts” asserted in hearsay statements, unless they are independently proven by competent evidence or are covered by a hearsay exception. (Sanchez, supra, 63 Cal. 4th at 686.) “Case specific facts are those relating to the particular events and participants alleged to have been involved in the case being tried.” (Sanchez, supra, 63 Cal. 4th at 676)

The Supreme Court recently clarified the meaning of “case-specific,” inadmissible hearsay in People v. Veamatahau (2020) 9 Cal. 5th 16. In Veamatahau, defendant Veamatahau was arrested with pills in his pocket. The prosecution’s expert criminalist testified that he was able to identify the pills found on the defendant by matching them to a drug identification database. On appeal, Defendant argued that the criminalist’s expert testimony should have been excluded as case-specific hearsay under Sanchez. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The court explained that, as codified in Evidence Code §§ 801 and 802, the hearsay rule has not traditionally barred and does not presently bar an expert’s testimony regarding his general knowledge in his field of expertise. By contrast, an expert may not relate inadmissible “case-specific facts about which the expert has no independent knowledge.” The Court conducted a thorough analysis of Evidence Code as it pertains to expert witnesses, including sections governing probative value, foundation, and hearsay exceptions.

Specifically, the Court found that (i) expert’s testimony concerning standard practice in the field (i.e., visual inspection of pharmaceutical pills and comparison of same against database of imprints required by the FDA) was not hearsay; (ii) Expert’s testimony that the seized pills contained alprazolam based on his own visual inspection of the pills also was not hearsay; and (iii) while some of Expert’s testimony under cross-examination constituted hearsay (i.e., concerning information in the database), such testimony was admissible because it was not case-specific. The Court held that the criminalist’s testimony did not include inadmissible case-specific facts that should be excluded under Sanchez. Rather, the information from the database was “the kind of background information experts have traditionally been able to rely on and relate to the jury.”

Veamatahau clarifies that the “distinction between case-specific facts and background information thus is crucial- the former may be excluded as hearsay, the latter may not.” (Veamatahau, supra, 9 Cal. 5th at 26)

Veamatahau will help guide trial practitioners with respect to expert witnesses from the initial consultation through presentation of trial testimony.

Lizel R. Cerezo

Email: lcerezo@pooleshaffery.com 

Phone: Santa Clarita 661-290-2991