Advocates for Justice

Understanding the Implications of People v. Sanchez

As legal professionals, we continue to grapple with the far-reaching implications of the Supreme Court case, People v. Sanchez (2016) 63 Cal.4th 665. I recently encountered a motion in limine titled “Defendant’s Motion to Preclude Expert Opinions Based on Hearsay (People v. Sanchez),” which clearly demonstrated the ongoing struggle to comprehend the consequences of this landmark decision.

However, it is crucial to clarify that expert witnesses can always rely on hearsay evidence. People v. Sanchez did not alter this fundamental principle. Instead, the case set limits on the types of hearsay evidence that experts are permitted to present to the jury. The key lies in distinguishing between “background information” and “case-specific facts.” While background information is admissible and falls under the purview of an expert’s professional knowledge, case-specific facts require independent corroboration or adherence to an applicable hearsay exception.

Background information is inherently practical. Experts are qualified based on their specialized knowledge, skills, experience, training, or education in a specific field. It is through conversations, lectures, and extensive reading on the subject that experts acquire their wealth of information. Although technically hearsay, this background information has traditionally been exempt from exclusionary rules, and People v. Sanchez did not alter its admissibility.

The pivotal change brought about by Sanchez lies in the admissibility of case-specific hearsay. In the context of presenting evidence, an expert is barred from relaying case-specific facts to the jury unless they are substantiated by competent evidence or fall under a relevant hearsay exception.

Hence, the analysis in a Sanchez-related case commences with classifying disputed evidence as either background information or case-specific facts. The Court’s description of case-specific facts revolves around details “relating to the particular events and participants alleged to have been involved in the case being tried.” Though subject to interpretation, the Court provided four illustrative examples to shed light on this concept.

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Case-specific facts (Column A) Background Information (Column B)
– Fifteen feet of skid marks observed at a car crash. – Mathematical formulas to estimate car speeds.
– Victim had hemorrhaging in her eyes during autopsy. – Potential causes of hemorrhaging of the eyes.
– Man had a diamond tattoo on his arm. – Diamond tattoos as common symbols of a particular gang.
– Adult plaintiff suffered head injury at age 4. – Causes or long-term effects of childhood head injuries.

An expert can always testify about background information (Column B), regardless of whether it qualifies as hearsay or not. The real challenge lies in Column A, where experts cannot testify about case-specific facts unless these facts meet the requirements for admissibility through a hearsay exception or appropriate witness testimony. Failing this, experts are legally barred from basing their opinions on such information.

In the pre-Sanchez era, experts had more leeway. They could freely present facts from both columns. If the case-specific facts were hearsay, the judge would simply issue a limiting instruction to the jury, emphasizing that these facts were not presented for their truth but rather to provide insight into the expert’s opinion. However, Sanchez rejected this paradigm, emphasizing that if Column A facts are not true, the expert’s opinion holds no value. Consequently, case-specific facts must be presented for their truth and, if originating from out-of-court statements, must be supported by competent evidence in accordance with Sanchez.

To effectively navigate Sanchez-related issues, trial attorneys must address them well in advance of trial. During depositions, it is crucial to scrutinize the case-specific facts upon which an expert’s opinion is based. Ensuring the admissibility of these facts during trial alleviates concerns surrounding motions to exclude evidence on Sanchez grounds.

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By Donald J. Magilligan, Senior Associate at Garrity Traina