Super 8 and Motel 6 registration records take center stage in an Illinois appeals court’s discussion of the razor-thin difference between computer-stored and computer-generated business records.
In People v. Schwab, 2019 IL App (4th), a sexual assault defendant argued the trial court erroneously admitted his hotel check-in records during a jury trial that culminated in a guilty verdict and long prison sentence.
The prosecution offered hotel records into evidence at trial to place the defendant at a certain location and at a fixed date and time. Over the defendant’s hearsay objection, the trial court allowed the records into evidence. Defendant appealed his conviction and 25-year sentence.
Affirming, the appeals court first provided a useful gloss on hearsay rules generally and then drilled down to the specific rules governing business records.
Hearsay is an out of court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted and is typically excluded for its inherent lack of reliability. The business-records exception allows for the admission of a writing or record where (1) the writing or record was made as a memorandum or record of the event, (2) it was made in the regular course of business, and (3) it was the regular course of business to make the record at the time of the transaction or within a reasonable time thereafter.
Anyone familiar with a business can testify as to business records, and the original entrant (i.e. the person inputting the data) doesn’t have to be a witness for the records to get into evidence. [⁋ 37]
Additional foundation is required when a business record is contained on a computer. Illinois courts recognize the distinction between (a) computer-stored records and (b) computer-generated records.
The foundation for admitting computer-generated records is less stringent than that governing computer-stored ones. Computer-generated records are deemed intrinsically more reliable than their computer-stored counterparts.
Print-outs of computer-stored records are admissible as a hearsay exception where (1) the computer equipment is recognized as standard, (2) the input is entered in the regular course of business reasonably close in time to the happening of the event recorded, and (3) the foundation testimony establishes that the source of information, method and time of preparation indicate its trustworthiness and justifies its admission. [⁋ 38]
For computer-generated records, the admissibility threshold is more relaxed: the proponent only needs to show the recording device was accurate and operating properly when the data was generated.
The Court found that the Super 8 reservation records were computer-generated (and therefore subject to less stringent admissibility rules). The hotel’s front desk clerk’s trial testimony established that the hotel’s reservation record was automatically generated by a hotel computer at the time someone books a reservation.
According to the Court, that data may have originally been input into a third-party website (like Priceline or Expedia) didn’t cast doubt on the records’ reliability. All that mattered was that the registration record was created automatically and contemporaneously (with the on-line reservation) to qualify as computer-generated records.
The Court agreed with the defendant that two Motel 6 records offered as prosecution trial exhibits were computer-stored. The court found that the computer records created when a guest checked in required the hotel clerk to scan the guest’s identification card and to manually input the guest’s check-in and check-out times and payment information. Since this information was the end result of human data entry, the records were deemed computer-stored.
Even so, the Court found that the State sufficiently laid the foundation for the computer-stored data. The Court credited the Motel 6 hotel clerk’s testimony that the franchise’s check-in procedures were uniform and the hotel’s computer booking system was standard in the hospitality industry. Taken together, the testimony concerning Motel 6’s integrated check-in processes and its use of industry-standard reservation software was enough to meet the computer-stored evidence admissibility threshold.
Afterwords: Despite Schwab’s disturbing fact-pattern, the case has value for civil and criminal trial practitioners alike for its trenchant discussion of business records exception to the hearsay rule and the admissibility standards for computer-generated and computer-stored records.