In New Jersey, the rules of evidence indicate that lay opinion testimony, which is non-expert witness testimony, is admissible when two conditions are met. First, the witness’s testimony must be rationally based on their perception. Secondly, the testimony must assist in understanding the witness’s testimony or determining a fact in issue.
However, assessing the admissibility and helpfulness of lay opinion testimony may present challenges when the potential for undue prejudice surfaces.
In State v. Sanchez , the Defendant filed a pretrial motion to exclude the lay opinion testimony of his parole officer who had identified him as a suspect in connection with a homicide and robbery investigation.
Although the parole officer had not witnessed the actual crimes take place, and did not have “firsthand” knowledge that the Defendant committed the crime, she had contacted the lead detective on the investigation after she believed to have recognized the suspect on a flyer as the Defendant.
On July 22, 2021, the Supreme Court of New Jersey decided that the lay opinion testimony of the parole officer should not be excluded.
The Court found that the first component of the evidence rule, requiring that the testimony be “rationally based on the witness’s perception,” was satisfied. The Court came to this conclusion based on the fact that the parole officer has had extensive contacts with the Defendant on a continuous basis for the fifteen months following his release from incarceration.
The Court also found that the second component of the evidence rule, requiring that the testimony would assist a jury in “understanding the witness’s testimony or determining a fact in issue,” was satisfied. The Court came to this conclusion by considering the following factors: (1) the nature, timing and duration of the witness’s with the defendant, (2) whether the defendant’s appearance had changed since the time of the offense, (3) whether there was any other adequate identification testimony available to the prosecution, and (4) the quality of the photograph or video recording at issue.
Since the parole officer had met with the Defendant on more than thirty occasions, the first factor favored the admissibility of the parole officer’s testimony. The Court was unaware if there had been any changes to the Defendant’s appearance, but noted that if there had been any changes then that would favor the admission of the parole officer’s testimony. The prosecution had no other identification testimony available, and the Court held that in favor of the admissibility of the parole officer’s testimony. Finally, the Court found that the quality of the photograph also favored the admission of the parole officer’s testimony because it was neither too blurry so that the suspect’s features were indistinguishable and not so clear that a jury could determine as accurately as the parole officer that the suspect depicted in the photo was the Defendant. Weighing these factors together, the Court decided that lay opinion testimony of the parole officer should not be excluded.
The Court also addressed the potential for undue prejudice if a jury found out that the Defendant was on parole following a period of incarceration for aggravated manslaughter. To minimize the potential for prejudice, the Court suggested that the parole officer should refrain from revealing that she was the Defendant’s parole officer or a law enforcement officer and she should describe her relationship to the Defendant as “professional”.
In conclusion, New Jersey’s rules of evidence require more than minimal contacts with a Defendant in order for a lay opinion testimony to be introduced. The potential for prejudice in lay opinion testimony may be minimized through “sanitization”, but that won’t be true in all cases.
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