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The post below was published on Monday, October 25th, 2010 at 8:59 AM.

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Florida Supreme Court: Bench Trial Evidentiary Error

In my experience, appellate counsel tend to discount the possibility that evidentiary rulings made during a bench trial can be the basis for reversible error. After all, there is case law holding that the judge presumptively relies on evidence properly admitted and ignores evidence improperly admitted.

(Some might say that such presumptions affect the very admission of evidence — courts sometimes seem to admit most anything in bench trials, characterizing the matter as merely one of the weight to be given to a particular piece of challenged evidence.)

No more. This decision from the Florida Supreme Court quashed a district court decision that presumed a trial judge ignored evidence erroneously admitted over objection.

After a lengthy discussion, the court set out three basic rules of review that apply regardless of whether improper evidence is brought to the trial court’s attention at a pre-trial hearing or during trial: (1) the trial court is presumed to rest its judgment on admissible evidence and disregard inadmissible evidence, (2) this presumption is rebutted where the trial court specifically finds the evidence admissible or otherwise demonstrates reliance on the evidence, and (3) even if the trial court erroneously admits evidence over objection, the presumption holds if the trial court expressly states on the record that the evidence did not contribute to the final determination. Of course, a harmless error analysis applies as well.

The court did not appear to limit its decision to criminal matters.

Trial courts, take note. Appellate counsel, enjoy.

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