In US v Nelson, an opinion released August 7, 2013 by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals it was determined police testimony that, in response to an anonymous 911 call, Mr. Nelson had a gun was inadmissible hearsay and should not have been allowed at the trial of Mr. Nelson.
Police were dispatched in response to an anonymous 911 caller reporting that a black man wearing a blue shirt, with an afro, riding a bicycle, was armed with a pistol. Officers arrived and saw a person matching the description (Mr. Nelson) and ordered him to stop. He did not. As officer’s, in their squad car, followed Mr. Nelson, on his bike, they saw Mr. Nelson reach into his waistband and throw a large, heavy object into nearby bushes. The officers apprehended Nelson and searched him, finding bullets in his pocket and recovering a loaded gun in the bushes. Nelson was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.
The only issue in the case was “did Mr. Nelson have possession of a gun?” Mr. Nelson argued that the 911 caller’s description of the suspect was inadmissible hearsay. The lower court disagreed. The court of appeals found that there was enough evidence to support Nelson’s conviction but reversed it any way. It found that admission of hearsay evidence to prove Nelson had a gun was inadmissible hearsay and not harmless error because it was more probable than not that it had a material impact on the jury’s verdict.
The government argued that the testimony regarding the 911 call was just background information and how the officers came to be at Mr. Nelson’s location. Background information might not be hearsay because it is offered not for the truth of the matter asserted, but rather to show why officers acted as they did. Background information was irrelevant in Mr. Nelson’s case because the officer’s background and state of mind was never an issue. A less detailed statement indicating the police received a 911 call, without detailing the caller’s description, would have avoided the prejudice problem while still ensuring that the jury was given the minimal background needed to understand why the officers behaved as they did.
The trial court did give an instruction to the jury regarding the problem. However, the court of appeals determined that was not enough to mitigate the prejudice. Hearsay testimony as to the crux of the issue being tried is not admissible.
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