Almost everyone has an idea about what relevance means. In everyday use it means having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand. In the context of business and investing, information is often considered relevant and material if it is information that a reasonable purchaser of stock would want to know about a business before buying. In short, in non-legal and semi-legal contexts, relevance is mostly a “yes” answer to the question, “Would I want to know it while considering this issue?” In court, however, relevance is a bit different. This may be best illustrated by example.
Assume that you are on a jury trying to decide if a man should be found guilty of having cheated on his taxes. Would you want to know if he also regularly beat his children? Most jurors would. A juror would probably think to himself that anyone who is willing to beat their children probably would not think twice about cheating on their taxes. In the legal context though (absent certain special circumstances) the prosecution would never be allowed to introduce evidence that the man beat his kids. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, evidence is relevant in the legal context if “it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” In the example I just gave, the fact that someone hurts kids does not actually tell you anything factually about whether and how they report their income. The fact that he beat his kids just does not have anything to do with the simple and narrow question, “did this man misreport his income?” Since it has nothing to do with that question, it is not relevant and courts do not hear and will not accept irrelevant information.
Second, in every U.S. court relevant evidence can still be excluded (that is, not accepted or heard) if its value as evidence is “substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Among these possibilities, the most common reason relevant evidence is excluded is unfair prejudice and the example shows exactly why. Logically speaking, whether a man beats his children has probably no correlative relationship with whether or not he cheats on his taxes. Plenty of people who beat their children do not cheat on their taxes. Plenty of people who cheat on their taxes have never harmed their children. Yet, most jurors hearing this case would probably be willing to condemn the accused simply because they would think he is a bad man who hurts his children. That is, they would be convicting him of the crime of tax evasion not because they had any information to show that on this specific occasion the accused intentionally incorrectly reported his income, but because they think he is a bad guy. This is an impermissible reason to convict.
The fact that the fellow in the example is a bad guy and is going to get away with harming his children leaves a rotten taste in most mouths. But in the United States we make it a principle not to convict people simply because they are bad, but because they have done some specific wrong on some specific occasion. If the government wished to convict this guy of income tax evasion, they should have presented evidence of income tax evasion. If they wanted to convict him of something based on the fact that he hurts his children, they should have charged him with child abuse.
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