I, Hearsay: Computer Generated Reports as Testimony

Is a computer generated printout a statement according to the hearsay rules?  California law says “no.”  People v. Nazary, 2010 Cal. App. LEXIS 2207 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. Dec. 31, 2010)

People v. Nazary is an appeal from an embezzlement conviction.  Part of the evidence offered against the Defendant included computer generated printouts (receipts).  The Defendant opposed the computer generated evidence as hearsay, because the receipts were “offered for its truth to establish that he had stolen money…” Nazary, at *52-53. 

This raises the computer age-old metaphysical issues of whether a computer is a “person” who can make a statement.  To the eternal dismay of science fiction fans, the Court of Appeal did not once invoke Hal 9000 or reference the Outer Limits “I, Robot” trial. 

The Court of Appeals did, however, review the California Rules of Evidence. 

California Evidence Code 1200(a) defines Hearsay as follows:

“[E]vidence of a statement that was made other than by a witness while testifying at the hearing and that is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated”; 

Nazary, at *53. 

A “statement” is defined under California Evidence Code section 225, as follows:

 “(a) oral or written verbal expression or (b) nonverbal conduct of a person intended by him as a substitute for oral or written verbal expression”;

Nazary, at *53. 

A “person” is defined under California Evidence Code section 175 as “a natural person, firm, association, organization, partnership, business trust, corporation, limited liability company, or public entity.” Nazary, at *53. 

In the words of the Court of Appeal, the California Evidence code “does not contemplate that a machine can make a statement.” Nazary, at *53.  However, the witnesses who described the computer generated reports, plus how the computer generated the reports, were subject to examination for the jury.  Nazary, at *54-55.

As the Court of Appeal explained, the admissibility issues with the computer generated reports were foundational.  The issue was whether the computer was operated correctly or possible data errors.  These issues could be addressed by the cross-examination of the expert who used the computer system.  Nazary, at *54.

The Court of Appeals found the receipts were machine generated and thus not hearsay.  Nazary, at *54-55. 

The “Hearsay Rule” requires “testimonial assertions shall be subjected to the test of cross-examination.”  Nazary, at *55.   In the words of the Court, there was “no possible scenario” where the computer system could have been cross-examined.  Nazary, at *55. 

However, those who used the computer system to create the receipts were subject to cross-examination.  Nazary, at *55.  The evidence of machine error were presented for the jury, which was all that was required under California law.  Id.  

Bow Tie Thoughts

Computers do not take an oath to tell the truth and testify in court.  One day, we might live in that science fiction world.  Given that one can fly across the United States with an Internet connection in 5 hours is something that would have been science fiction to someone 90 years ago, do not be surprise if our grandchildren live in a world where a computer can testify as to how data was generated.

1 thought on “I, Hearsay: Computer Generated Reports as Testimony

  1. Mr. Gilliland:
    I may be a bit off-track here, but does this ruling have any implications for production of structured data? I’m thinking in terms of dynamic database entries that run continually or periodically. Obviously, a human writes (at minimum) the code that initially generates the database information, but the computer then takes on the task of actually generating data.

    How to manage and also what/how to retain and produce regarding structured data is an ongoing struggle. This seems to add an interesting wrinkle…thanks for an intriguing blog post.


    Aaron Taylor

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