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COMPETENCY OF WITNESSES - MN Bench Book - Trial Procedures & Practices for Judges
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COMPETENCY OF WITNESSES

From MN Bench Book - Trial Procedures & Practices for Judges

Click on “TRIAL PROCEDURES & PRACTICES FOR JUDGES” above to return to main page


Persons are generally competent to testify as a witness, and the burden rests on the opposing party to prove incompetency.[1] A witness’ competency may be challenged on the grounds of privilege,[2] lack of personal knowledge,[3] or mental incapacity.[4] Other reasons, such as religious beliefs or criminal record, are not legitimate questions of competency.[5]

Upon a challenge to the competency of a witness, it is a question of law to be determined by preliminary examination of the court.[6] When handling mental illness, the relevant determination is whether the witness "understands the obligation of an oath and is capable of correctly relating the facts to which the testimony relates."[7] Thus, mental infirmities do not automatically render a witness incompetent.[8]

Meeting the "obligations of the oath" has been described as "[a] witness who understands that he is brought to court to tell the truth, that it is wrongful to tell a lie, and that he will be punished if he tells a lie."[9]

The competency of children is similarly within the discretion of the trial court.[10] The decision is not reviewable, except for abuse of discretion.[11] The same test applies: does the child understand what it means to tell the truth, and is the child capable of correctly relating the facts?[12] It is recommended that the questions asked to determine competency do not involve the case subject matter.[13]

It is important to note that the old rule regarding age, specifying that children under the age of ten were presumed incompetent to testify unless their competency was otherwise demonstrated,[14] has been superseded by statute. The current rule[15] contains a presumption that children are competent to testify unless the district court specifically finds the contrary to be true.[16]

It is important to note that the old rule permitting the trial court to exclude the defendant (or his attorney) from a preliminary examination of young children has been overruled.[17]




References:

  1. "The statute or rule [concerning] the reception of evidence governs…The practical effect of the various rules and statutes on competency places the burden of proving lack of competency on the opponent of the evidence." 23 Minn. Prac., Trial Handbook For Minn. Lawyers § 22.1 (2007 ed.).
  2. M.S.A. § 595.02, subd. 1.
  3. 50 M.S.A., Rules of Evid., Rule 602. This is subject to Rule 703, regarding expert testimony.
  4. Reasons include age, intelligence, and mental condition .M.S.A. § 595.06.
  5. "Such matters as religious belief, a criminal record, even the actual bias of a witness are not grounds for ruling the witness incompetent, though they may be admissible for purposes of impeachment." 23 Minn. Prac., Trial Handbook For Minn. Lawyers § 22.1 (2007 ed.).
  6. "The competency of a witness to testify to a particular fact is a preliminary question for the trial judge, resting in his discretion." Sprague v. Wisconsin Cent. Ry. Co., 104 Minn. 58, 62, 116 N.W. 104 (Minn.,1908); see also State v. Prokosch, 152 Minn. 86, 88, 187 N.W. 971 (Minn.,1922) ("The mental competency of a witness is a question of law for the court, to be determined by such preliminary examination as the court deems necessary…"); Cornfeldt v. Tongen, 262 N.W.2d 684, 692 (Minn.,1977) ("Competence of witness to testify on particular matter is question of fact peculiarly within province of trial judge, whose ruling will not be reversed unless it is based on erroneous view of law or clearly not justified by the evidence."); State v. Brown, 278 Minn. 186, 188, 153 N.W.2d 229 (Minn.,1967) ("Under our decisions the court was correct in conducting a preliminary examination to decide as a matter of law whether the victim was capable of testifying."); State v. Kahner, 217 Minn. 574, 580, 15 N.W.2d 105 (Minn.,1944), cert. denied, 323 U.S. 768, 65 S.Ct. 121, 89 L.Ed. 614 (1944) ("The determination of the competency of a witness is for the trial court. Where the competency of a witness is challenged upon the ground of unsoundness of mind, the trial court should, as it did here, conduct a preliminary inquiry to enable it to determine the fact of the witness's competency.").
  7. State v. Hunt, 615 N.W.2d 294, 300 (Minn.,2000).
  8. "It *437 is a matter of common observation, that persons…may be in some degree unsound,…and yet be capable of recollecting past events accurately, and possess the ability and appreciate the duty to relate them truly, as fully as persons who are sober, and in all respects of sound mind. It is not to be supposed that the statute intends to disqualify such persons. It is more reasonable to suppose it intends to…admit persons as witnesses when…they are possessed of "such an understanding as enables them to retain in memory the events of which they have been witnesses, and gives them a knowledge of right and wrong" sufficient to appreciate the sanctity and binding force and obligation of an oath." Cannady v. Lynch, 27 Minn. 435, 436, 8 N.W. 164 (Minn.,1881); see also State ex rel. Dugal v. Tahash, 278 Minn. 175, 178, 153 N.W.2d 232 (Minn.,1967) ("[A] person may be able to recall and relate facts he has observed or experienced even though he does not possess sufficient judgmental capacity to consent to an act such as sexual intercourse.").
  9. "[T]he court below seems to have held it sufficient to admit [the witness] if she understood that she was brought to court to tell the truth, that it is wrongful to tell a lie, and that she would be punished if she told a lie. Under our statute, which admits as well those who profess to believe only in the punishment which human laws inflict as those who believe in punishment by divine law, we think the test acted on by the court below sufficient." State v. Levy, 23 Minn. 104, 106 (1876); see also State v. Cermak, 350 N.W.2d 328, 332+ (Minn.,1984) ("The obligation of the oath has been interpreted as primarily an understanding of the necessity to tell the truth.").
  10. "A child under ten years of age is a competent witness unless the court finds that the child lacks the capacity to remember or to relate truthfully facts respecting which the child is examined. A child describing any act or event may use language appropriate for a child of that age." M.S.A. § 595.02, subd. 1(m); see also State v. Norgaard, 272 Minn. 48, 50, 136 N.W.2d 628 (1965) ("The trial court is in the best position to determine whether a child of tender years is capable of ‘receiving just impressions of the facts' or of ‘relating them truly,‘ and consequently it is within the discretion of the trial court to pass upon the competence of such a witness.").
  11. "When a witness is objected to, on the ground that he or she is incompetent by reason of nonage or want of intelligence, it is the province of the trial court to determine the witness' competency, and its decision cannot be reviewed unless there is a clear abuse of discretion…" State v. Levy, 23 Minn. 104, 105 (1876); see also State v. Cermak, 350 N.W.2d 328, 332+ (Minn.,1984) ("Determination of witness competency rests in the discretion of the trial judge. The trial judge's finding of competency will not be reversed unless it is a clear abuse of discretion.").
  12. "If it appears from the examination that the witness understands the obligation of an oath and is capable of correctly narrating the facts to which his testimony relates, the witness is competent in fact and should be permitted to testify." State v. Whelan, 1971, 291 Minn. 83, 86, 189 N.W.2d 170 (Minn.,1971); see also State v. Sime, 669 N.W.2d 922 (Minn.App.,2003) ("The district court must first conclude that the child has (1) the capacity to tell the truth and (2) the ability to recall facts.").
  13. State v. Scott, 501 N.W.2d 608, 613 (Minn.1993).
  14. State v. Scott, 501 N.W.2d 608, 613 (Minn.1993).
  15. M.S.A. § 595.02, subd. 1(m) (2002).
  16. See M.S.A. § 595.02, subd. 1(m); State v. Scott, 501 N.W.2d 608, 613 (Minn.1993).
  17. "Because we believe *153 that a competency hearing is a ‘stage of the trial’ under Minn.R.Crim.P. 26.03, subd. 1, we conclude that a criminal defendant has a right to be present at a hearing to determine the competency of a witness, even a child witness." State v. Thompson, 430 N.W.2d 151, 152 (Minn.1988), reversing Moll v. State, 351 N.W.2d 639 (Minn.App.1984).