Abuse of Discretion

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Abuse of Discretion

A failure to take into proper consideration the facts and law relating to a particular matter; an Arbitrary or unreasonable departure from precedent and settled judicial custom.

Where a trial court must exercise discretion in deciding a question, it must do so in a way that is not clearly against logic and the evidence. An improvident exercise of discretion is an error of law and grounds for reversing a decision on appeal. It does not, however, necessarily amount to bad faith, intentional wrong, or misconduct by the trial judge.

For example, the traditional standard of appellate review for evidence-related questions arising during trial is the "abuse of discretion" standard. Most judicial determinations are made based on evidence introduced at legal proceedings. Evidence may consist of oral testimony, written testimony, videotapes and sound recordings, documentary evidence such as exhibits and business records, and a host of other materials, including voice exemplars, handwriting samples, and blood tests.

Before such materials may be introduced into the record at a legal proceeding, the trial court must determine that they satisfy certain criteria governing the admissibility of evidence. At a minimum, the court must find that the evidence offered is relevant to the legal proceedings. Evidence that bears on a factual or legal issue at stake in a controversy is considered relevant evidence.

The relevancy of evidence is typically measured by its probative value. Evidence is generally deemed Probative if it has a tendency to make the existence of any material fact more or less probable. Evidence that a murder defendant ate spaghetti on the day of the murder might be relevant at trial if spaghetti sauce was found at the murder scene. Otherwise such evidence would probably be deemed irrelevant and could be excluded from trial if opposing counsel made the proper objection.

During many civil and criminal trials, judges rule on hundreds of evidentiary objections lodged by both parties. These rulings are normally snap judgments made in the heat of battle. Courts must make these decisions quickly to keep the proceedings moving on schedule. For this reason, judges are given wide latitude in making evidentiary rulings and will not be over-turned on appeal unless the appellate court finds that the trial judge abused his or her discretion.

For example, in a Negligence case, a state appellate court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting into evidence a posed accident-scene photograph, even though the photograph depicted a model pedestrian blindly walking into the path of the driver's vehicle with the pedestrian's head pointed straight ahead as if she was totally oblivious to the vehicle and other traffic. Gorman v. Hunt, 19 S.W.3d 662 (Ky. 2000). In upholding the trial court's decision to admit the evidence, the appellate court observed that the photograph was only used to show the pedestrian's position relative to the vehicle at the time of impact and not to blame the pedestrian for being negligent. The appellate court also noted that the lawyer objecting to the photograph's admissibility was free to remind the jury of its limited relevance during cross-examination and closing arguments.

An appellate court would find that a trial court abused its discretion, however, if it admitted into evidence a photograph without proof that it was authentic. Apter v. Ross, 781 N.E.2d 744 (Ind.App. 2003). A photograph's authenticity may be established by a witness's personal observations that the photograph accurately depicts what it purports to depict at the time the photograph was taken. Ordinarily the photographer who took the picture is in the best position to provide such testimony.

Further readings

Cohen, Ruth Bryna. 2000."Superior Court Affirms Non Pros for Failure to Subpoena Own Witness; Trial Court Did not Abuse Discretion in Its Application of Civil Procedure Rule 216." Pennsylvania Law Weekly (October 9).

Hamblett, Mark. 2001. "Circuit Panel Issues Recusal Guidelines; Says Rakoff Acted Properly In Not Stepping Down." New York Law Journal (February 26).

Riccardi, Michael A. 2002."Polygraph Evidence OK to Prove Probable Cause, Circuit Judges Say; No Abuse of Discretion in Relying on 'Lie Detector' for Limited Purpose." Pennsylvania Law Weekly (April 29).


Appeal; Bad Faith; Error; Evidence; Precedent; Probative; Relevancy.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

abuse of discretion

n. a polite way of saying a trial judge has made such a bad mistake ("clearly against reason and evidence" or against established law) during a trial or on ruling on a motion and that a person did not get a fair trial. A court of appeals will use a finding of this abuse as a reason to reverse the a previous court result. Examples of "abuse of discretion" or judges' mistakes include not allowing an important witness to testify, making improper comments that might influence a jury, showing bias, or making rulings on evidence that deny a person a chance to tell his or her side of the matter. This does not mean a trial or the judge has to be perfect, but it does mean that the judge's actions were so far out of bounds that someone truly did not get a fair trial. Sometimes the appeals courts admit the judge was wrong, but not wrong enough to have influenced the outcome of the trial, often to the annoyance of the losing party. In criminal cases abuse of discretion can include sentences that are grossly too harsh. In a divorce action, it includes awarding alimony way beyond the established formula or the spouse's or life partner's realistic ability to pay.

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.
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