Friday, July 23, 2021

ARTICLE: Use of Police Reports in State and Federal Court Auto Accident Matters by Stephen T. Kopko

Here is a reprint of an article by Stephen T. Kopko, Esq. of Cummins Law which was recently published by the Pennsylvania Law Weekly on July 1, 2020. 


Use of Police Reports in State and Federal Court in Auto Accident Matters


By Stephen T. Kopko, Esq.

Cummins Law

July 1, 2021

In many motor vehicle accident negligence cases, the police officer’s investigation, and subsequent report, can become a crucial piece of evidence in determining the fault of a party in an accident. The police report normally contains the statements of the parties and witnesses involved in the accident and a diagram of how the accident may have occurred. The police officer also may list his assessment of the cause of the accident in the police report.

This information can be of important use in determining the liability of the plaintiff or defendant in an accident, the severity of the collision and the severity of the plaintiff’s alleged injuries from the accident. However, the ability to use the actual report as evidence during trial differs depending on whether the case is being tried in state or federal court.

Police Reports in State Court Trials Are Generally Prohibited

The Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code contains a specific provision that prohibits the use of police reports in state court trials arising out of motor vehicle accidents. According to 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3751(b)(4), “the copy of the police report shall not be admissible as evidence in any action for damages or criminal proceedings arising out of a motor vehicle accident.”

The rationale behind this prohibition was summed up best, as follows: “A police report prepared by an officer who is not a witness to the accident is inadmissible hearsay evidence and should not be admitted into evidence. Nor should a party be able to get such a report into evidence in an indirect manner.” See Rox Coal v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, 807 A.2d 906, 914 (2002).

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court’s decision in Harris v. Philadelphia Facilities Management, 106 A.3d 183 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014), provides additional guidance as to how police reports can be used, or be prohibited from being used, as evidence at trial in Pennsylvania state courts. The plaintiff in Harris was involved in a single-vehicle motorcycle accident in Philadelphia. The defendant in Harris was performing work on a gas main located at an intersection in the city and created irregularities in the roadway. The plaintiff in Harris alleged that the condition of the road caused the plaintiff to lose control of his vehicle and suffer a variety of injuries as a result of the accident.

Two Temple University police officers responded to the crash and one of the officers prepared the police report. The police report contained the officer’s opinions as to the alleged causes of the accident and included references to the plaintiff’s speeding, improper careless turning and driver inexperience.

Prior to trial, the plaintiff in Harris filed a motion in limine to preclude those portions of the police accident report referencing the plaintiff’s actions in the accident. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion in limine and precluded the use of the entire police report at trial.

The Temple police officer who did not author the report testified at trial. During his testimony, the officer acknowledged that he reviewed the police report to refresh his recollection for any details of the accident that he may have forgotten. Not satisfied with the jury’s verdict in the matter, the plaintiff in Harris appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court and raised the issues surrounding the admissibility of the police report at trial.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in Harris found that the trial court in Harris did not abuse its discretion in precluding the police report as evidence pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3751(b)(4). More specifically, the Commonwealth Court in Harris ruled that the trial court in Harris did not abuse its discretion in prohibiting the investigating police officer from being cross-examined at trial with the police accident report. Additionally, the Commonwealth Court ruled that the trial court did not commit an abuse of discretion in prohibiting the defense accident reconstruction expert from being cross-examined with the opinions in the police report, despite the accident reconstructions expert’s testimony that he had reviewed the report in coming to his ultimate opinion as to the cause of the accident.

The Commonwealth Court in Harris also ruled that the trial court in Harris did not abuse its discretion in also prohibiting the plaintiff’s accident reconstruction experts from testifying as to the contents of the police report, despite those experts’ review of the same. More specifically, the Commonwealth Court noted that, even though accident reconstruction experts are permitted to consider facts or data in the police accident reports in rendering their opinions according to Pa.R.E. 703, Section 3751(b)(4) does not allow an accident reconstruction expert to indirectly admit the investigating police officer opinions into evidence regarding the cause of the subject accident through the expert’s trial testimony.

The above cases show that police reports are typically precluded from being admitted into evidence at state court trials arising out of motor vehicle accidents. As noted below, that is not always the case in federal court trials.

Police Reports May be Admissible in Federal Court

The rules of admissibility of police reports in civil litigation matters in federal courts is more liberal than in Pennsylvania state courts. In contrast to the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence and Pennsylvania law, which holds that police reports are not admissible in automobile negligence cases, the admission of police reports at trial in a federal case is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. More specifically, Federal Rule of Evidence 803, which provides for exceptions to the rule against the admissibility of hearsay evidence.

Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8) permits the admission of hearsay statements that consists of “a record or statement of a public office if it sets out … in a civil case …, factual findings from a legally authorized investigation and the opponent does not show that the source of the information or other circumstances indicate a lack of trustworthiness.”

This exception is commonly known as the Public Records Exception to the Hearsay Rule. In its decision in Clark v. Clabaugh, 20 F.3d 1290 (3d Cir. 1994), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that a police report generated from a state police investigation was admissible pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 803(8). The court in Clark wrote that the state police investigation and report is admissible as a public report and contained an indicia of trustworthiness, including with respect to the police officer’s opinions, conclusions, and recommendations, except in those cases where the opposing party was able to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of the document or the person authoring the report.

In Prescott v. R&L Transfer, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania was faced with the issue of the admissibility of a Pennsylvania state police crash report and the testimony of the investigating state troopers in a tractor-trailer accident matter. The plaintiff in Prescott was operating a tractor trailer that left the road and struck an embankment. The Pennsylvania State Police conducted an investigation and issued a police report.

As the case progressed towards trial, the plaintiff in Prescott filed a motion in limine to preclude the state police report as the investigating troopers’ opinions were not helpful to the plaintiff. The plaintiff in Prescott argued that the police report was inadmissible hearsay and lacked trustworthiness as the troopers who authored the report did not actually witness the accident and were not trained in accident reconstruction. The defendant in Prescott argued that the police report was admissible according to Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8), the Public Records Exception to the Hearsay rule.

The court in Prescott wrote that, “In evaluating the trustworthiness of a public record under Rule 803(8) courts have considered the timeliness of the investigation, the skill or experience of the investigating officers, whether a hearing was held, and the presence of any improper motive. See Vanderpoel v. A-P-A Transport, No. 90-5866, (E.D. Pa. 1992).”

In finding that the police report in Prescott was trustworthy, the trial court relied upon evidence that the investigating officer in Prescott arrived at the accident scene soon after the accident occurred, and based upon evidence that the officer had investigated similar accidents over the course of his career. As a result, the trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion in limine to preclude the police report as evidence in that matter.

While a police report may be admissible in federal court, it is noted that some federal courts have prohibited police officers from testifying at trial as to the cause of an accident if they were not a witness to the accident. In the case of Ernst v. Ace Motor Sales, 550 F. Supp. 1220 (E.D. Pa. 1982), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania provided a different analysis of admissible testimony of investigating police officers in automobile accident matters.

The plaintiff in Ernst filed a lawsuit against the defendant as a result of an automobile accident. The jury in Ernst found that the defendant in Ernst was not at fault for the subject accident. During the trial, the investigating police officer in Ernst had testified as to the point of impact between the vehicles on the roadway, despite not being present at the time of the accident. The Ernst court allowed the officer to testify at trial as to the point of impact under Federal Rule of Evidence 701 and Federal Rule of Evidence 702.

The Ernst court noted that the police officer’s testimony was admissible only with regards to the point of impact between the vehicles. Significantly, the same court held that the police officer’s testimony was not admissible as to the cause of the accident. In footnote 3 of its decision, the court in Ernst emphasized that it had not allowed the police officer to testify at trial as to who was at fault for the accident.

A Dichotomy in the Law

Although Pennsylvania law generally prohibits the admission of police reports in most motor vehicle accident negligence cases, see 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3751(b)(4), the Third Circuit and some district courts within the Third Circuit have analyzed the admissibility of Pennsylvania police reports under the Federal Rules of Evidence and have generally held that police reports are admissible at civil litigation trial under the Public Records Exception to the Rule Against Hearsay.  See Clark v. Clabaugh, 20 F.3d 1290 (3d Cir. 1994).  A review of the applicable law reveals that federal courts have a much more liberal standard in admitting police reports as evidence in motor vehicle accident matters compared to those civil cases that are filed in Pennsylvania state courts, where police reports are generally not admissible in motor vehicle accident matters.

Also, whereas the opinions of investigating officers who are not eyewitness to an accident are generally not admissible in a state court action, such evidence may, in some cases, be presented to federal court juries through the admission of the police report.


Stephen T. Kopko is an associate attorney in the Clarks Summit law firm of Cummins Law where he handles all aspects of civil litigation including the defense of automobile accident cases, premises liability cases, products liability claims, and medical malpractice matters, and insurance coverage matters. Contact him at stephenkopko@cumminslaw.net.

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