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The Best Evidence Rule: Documentary Evidence May Be Supplanted By Testimony


best evidence rule best appeals convictions

People v. Haggerty

2014 NY Slip Op 04874

New York Court Of Appeals

Decided on June 30, 2014

The Best Evidence Rule Takes A Dive For The Mayor

Summary: Defendant offered to organize the ballot security for the Mayoral re-election. Defendant’s plan estimated the cost of the operation at $1.1 million. The campaign treasurer authorized the transfer of $1.2 million in two 600,000 installments. Defendant billed for fictitious ballot security services in order to buy a house with the rest of the money. He was indicted for grand larceny and money laundering and was found guilty at trial and was granted leave to appeal. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction and Defendant appealed. Defendant argued that Marjorie Jane’s testimony, the principle draftsperson of the trust violated the best evidence rule and that without her testimony there was a deficiency in the People’s proof.

          At The Court Of Appeals, Defendant argued that the best evidence rule requires the production of an original writing where its content are in dispute and sought to be proven. The rule protects against fraud, perjury, and inaccurate recollection by allowing the jury to judge a document by its own literal terms. The Court Of Appeals held that the best evidence rule does not require Marjorie Jane’s Testimony claiming Bloomberg’s ownership. The previous testimony had already proved the ownership of the trust, and thus, there was no significant probability that the jury would have failed to convict even without the admission of the trust document. The Court Of Appeals affirmed.

See Also: Cyberbullying And The First Amendment Freedom Of Speech Clause 

Issue: Whether testimony regarding the source of stolen funds violates the best evidence rule where there was no production of original writing.

Holding: No. The Court Of Appeals held that People’s testimony did not violate the best evidence rule because the principal draftsperson of the trust, Marjorie Jane Friday, testified on her independent knowledge that Bloomberg owned the money in the trust, and, regardless, the terms of the trust instrument were collateral to the issue of whether the funds belonged to Bloomberg. Bloomberg and several other prosecution witnesses proved that ownership. In the alternative, even if admission of testimony violated the best evidence rule, the error was harmless.

Facts: Defendant was a Bloomberg campaign volunteer and offered to organize ballot security for the re-election. Defendant’s plan included hiring more than a thousand people and estimated the cost of the operation at $1.1 million. The campaign treasurer authorized the transfer of $1.2 million in two 600,000 installments from the Michael R. Bloomberg Revocable Trust to the Independence Party.

$1.1 million was slated to fund the ballot security operation, and $100,000 was a campaign contribution to the Independence Party. Defendant provided minimal coverage of the polls faction and instead, hired a small number of volunteers with costs estimated at $32,000.

            Defendant billed for fictitious ballot security services in order to buy his brother’s share of their childhood home. Defendant incorporated Special Election Operations (SEO), naming himself as sole member and opened up an account in SEO’s name, listing him as the sole signatory. Defendant, SEO, billed and received $750,000 from the Independence Party for the ballot security operation. Defendant withdrew the money from the SEO account and used it to buy the house. The State Board of Elections requested information regarding the ballot security operation and Bloomberg’s lawyer contacted Defendant. Bloomberg’s lawyer requested documents to account for ballot security expenses, and Defendant agreed to supply pay stubs for the payments.

Defendant wrote $500 checks and forwarded pay stubs to Bloomberg’s lawyer. The documentation raised suspicions and eventually the New York District Attorney began an investigation and indicted Defendant for grand larceny in the first degree, for stealing over $1 million dollars from Bloomberg, money laundering in the second degree for hiding money, and falsifying business records in the first degree for the phony checks.

           At trial, Bloomberg testified that he funded the $1million ballot security operation. He further testified that his campaign never received satisfactory documentation supporting the expenditures. The People presented evidence from members of Bloomberg’s staff and the Independence Party. They testified that they released the $1.1 million of Bloomberg’s money in two installments to the Independence Party for use in the ballot security operation. The Independence party testified that the Party paid $750,000 of the money to SEO in exchange for ballot services that were never rendered.

A financial investigator testified at trial that Defendant paid for his house with the funds that originated with the Independence Party, as well as, Marjorie Jane Friday, the principal draftsperson of the trust, testified that the trust funds belonged to Michael Bloomberg. The jury found Defendant guilty of grand larceny and money laundering, the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court Of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division and held that the Defendant’s best evidence rule challenge lacks merit because by the time Defendant finally raised his objection; Bloomberg and several witnesses provided testimony that proved ownership. Defendant allowed the People to admit this evidence without objection. The Court Of Appeals held that the testimony did not violate the best evidence rule. The principal draftsperson of the trust testified based on her independent knowledge that Bloomberg owned the money in the trust, and, regardless, the terms of the trust instrument were collateral to the issue of whether the funds belonged to Bloomberg.

Legal Analysis: The Court Of Appeals held that the testimony did not violate the best evidence rule. The principal draftsperson of the trust testified based on her independent knowledge that Bloomberg owned the money in the trust, and, regardless, the terms of the trust instrument were collateral to the issue of whether the funds belonged to Bloomberg. The Court Of Appeals held that the best evidence rule requires the production of an original writing where its contents are in dispute and sought to be proven. The rule protects against fraud, perjury, and inaccurate recollection by allowing the jury to judge a document by its own literal terms. Defendant argues that the terms of Bloomberg’s trust were in dispute because those terms would demonstrate whether the trust funds belonged to Bloomberg.

Marjorie Jane Friday’s testimony did not violate the best evidence rule. The trust instrument was collateral with the issue of whether the funds belonged to Bloomberg. Defendants best evidence rule challenge lacks merit because by the time Defendant finally raised his objection, Bloomberg, Marjorie Jane Friday, and several other prosecution witnesses had already given their testimony that tended to prove ownership. Defendant allowed the People to admit this without raising an objection. There was no significant probability that the jury would have failed to convict, even without Marjorie Jane Friday’s testimony of the trust document.