Archives for February 2017

Cancelled Checks Admitted Into Evidence As Computerized Business Records Over Defendant’s Hearsay Objection – IL 4th Dist.

People v. Doggett, 2014 IL App (4th) 120773-U, examines the business records hearsay exception through the lens of a criminal elder abuse case where copies of cancelled checks were integral to the State’s case.

In affirming the defendant’s conviction, the Court answered some important questions concerning the admissibility of computer-generated records and when documents generated by a third party – as opposed to the defendant – fall within the scope of the business records rule.

The state sued an assisted-living home operator for elder abuse.  The prosecution claimed the operator took advantage of a resident by gaining control of his bank account and using the those funds to pay the defendants’ personal expenses.

At trial, over defendant’s hearsay and foundation objections, the prosecution offered copies of the resident’s bank statements and cancelled checks images that bore the defendant’s signature.  A jury found defendant guilty of financial exploitation of the elderly and the court later sentenced defendant to eight years’ imprisonment.  Defendant appealed.

Result: Conviction upheld.

Rules/Reasons:

Section 115-5(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure tracks the language of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 236 – the analogous civil rule that governs admissibility of business records.

The rationale for the business records hearsay exception is two-fold: first, businesses generally are motivated to routinely keep accurate records and are unlikely to falsify them.  Second, a business’s credibility largely depends on “regular, prompt, and systematic nature of business records” and those records are relied on in the operation of a business.

To lay a foundation for a business record, the maker of the record doesn’t have to testify.  Nor does the records custodian have to testify.  A document created by a third party where that third party had authority to generate the document on the business’s behalf in the regular course of business is admissible under the business-record hearsay exception.

This is because a third-party’s record would useless to a business unless accurate and reliable.  Where a person receives an apparent business record then integrates and relies on it in day-to-day operations, the recipient can lay a foundation for the business record.

Computer-stored records, business records admission requires a showing that (1) the electronic computing equipment that stores the records is recognized as standard, (2) the data input into the system that generates the record is done in the regular course of business reasonably close in time to the happening of the recorded event, and (3) the foundation testimony establishes that the sources of information, method and time of preparation indicate its trustworthiness and justify its admission. (¶¶ 43-44)

Applying these rules, the court noted that banks routinely rely on information in checks to maintain customer accounts. (“If the information in checks were generally unreliable, then the entire banking system would fail.”)

Since UCC Section 4-406 requires banks to maintain copies of paid items for seven years, the court properly found that the cancelled check copies properly qualified as business records and were admissible over the defendant’s hearsay objection.

The appeals court also found that the cancelled checks satisfied the admissibility standards for computer-stored records.  It noted that the checks were routinely uploaded and kept in the bank’s “optical system” and done so close in time to the bank’s receipt of the check in question.

The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the checks offered into evidence were not relevant.  Relevant evidence is evidence that has a tendency to make the existence of a fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.  While a handwriting expert can be used to opine on whether a defendant did or didn’t sign a document, expert testimony not required to authenticate a defendant’s signature.  See 735 ILCS 5/8-1501.  Code Section 8-1501 allows a judge or jury to compare a defendant’s disputed signatures with his known (admitted) ones.

While a handwriting expert can opine on whether a defendant did or didn’t sign a document, expert testimony isn’t required to authenticate a defendant’s signature.  See 735 ILCS 5/8-1501.  Code Section 8-1501 allows a judge or jury to compare a defendant’s disputed signatures with known (undisputed) ones.

Here, the jury had enough admitted handwriting examples to compare against the disputed signature to find the defendant more likely than not signed the back of the resident’s rent checks used at trial.

Afterwords:

1/ Business records are inherently trustworthy and so fall in the class of hearsay documents that are routinely admitted in evidence;

2/ Computer-stored business records must pass additional admissibility hurdles that focus on the integrity of the computing equipment; and

3/ No expert testimony needed to authenticate handwriting on a disputed document.