Can an Attorney Prevent the Undocumented Status of the Plaintiff or Defendant From Being Admitted Into Evidence In a Personal Injury Case?

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            We are preparing for trial in a case where our client is a Mexican citizen and has been undocumented in the United States for two or three years. The Defendants have attempted to bring that fact out in numerous ways. This case is in Federal court, but the laws there tend to mirror our state laws regarding whether or not this factual circumstance may be excluded from the trial.


Rules of Evidence Control Admissibility of the Undocumented Status of a Litigant

Most lay people seem to hold the belief that a lawyer can bring ANY information he or she wants in front of a judge and jury during trial. That belief is incorrect. Both federal and state courts have what are called the “Rules of Evidence” which explain exactly what is and what is now allowed to be brought up as evidence during a trial. Most states, including Indiana, have their rules of evidence based primarily off the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE). According to Federal Rules of Evidence 402, all relevant evidence is admissible and irrelevant evidence is not admissible. FRE 401 holds that evidence is relevant if: (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action. Rule 403 further holds that even if the evidence is relevant, “[t]he court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”


Is the Fact that a Person is Undocumented Relevant to the Issues Being Tried in a Personal Injury Case?

What does all this law mean? What it means is that for a person’s undocumented status to come into evidence (and thus be shown to the jury) the fact that the person is undocumented must be “relevant.” To be relevant, a persons undocumented status has to be related to the issue that is being decided by the court case (e.g. is being undocumented related to you hitting another car?). Lastly, even if an undocumented status IS relevant, the question becomes: is the relevance of the undocumented status “substantially outweighed” by unfair prejudice against the undocumented person. Stated another way, if a jury learns that a person is undocumented during a car accident trial, would the fact that the jury knows the person was undocumented prevent the jury from making an unbiased decision on the main issue of the case (e.g. who is responsible for the car accident)?


Specific Laws Regarding the Relevance of the Immigration Status of a Plaintiff or Defendant

In addition to the Rules of Evidence themselves, many courts have interpreted the meanings of the individual rules. Relevant to our current topic, where a party’s immigration status “only goes to a collateral issue,” and not to a material aspect of the case, the probative value of the evidence is outweighed by the potential risks of confusion of the issues, misleading the jury, or waste of time. Campos v. Lemay, 05 CIV. 2089(LTS)(FM, 2007 WL 1344344 (S.D.N.Y. May 7, 2007). Stated another way, if immigration status doesn’t address the main point of the case (e.g. fault in a car accident), immigration status cannot be presented to the jury. In Zeng Liu v Donna Karan Int’l, Inc. a group of Chinese immigrant workers brought an action against their employer alleging violation of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The employer moved to discover workers’ immigration status. The Court held that evidence of workers’ immigration status was not relevant and prejudice would outweigh probative value. 207 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 2002). Other courts have also found that inquiring into a party’s immigration status …presents a “danger of intimidation [that] would inhibit plaintiffs in pursuing their rights.” Liu v. Donna Karan International, Inc., 207 F.Supp.2d 191, 193 (S.D.N.Y.2002). Overall, Courts have commonly found that introduction of a person’s immigration status is either irrelevant or substantially more prejudicial than probative and thus inadmissible in court.

This has been found true of direct references to immigration status as well as indirect methods to get the fact into evidence. In the case of Andrade v. Walgreens-Optioncare, Inc., the judge precluded Walgreens from presenting evidence relating to Plaintiff’s immigration status under FRE 403. In response, Walgreens attempted to introduce evidence that Plaintiff lied about his social security number. The judge found that “permitting Walgreens to inquire directly about whether [Plaintiff] lied about his social security number exposes [Plaintiff] to the same risk of prejudice as asking about his immigration status. This is especially true here, given that [Plaintiff] does not speak English, and will be using an interpreter if he takes the stand at trial. The combination of [Plaintiff]’s inability to speak English, and the suggestion that he does not have a social security number, exposes [Plaintiff] to the risk that the jury might leap to a conclusion about his immigration status, leading to the same risk of unfair prejudice as if Walgreens directly inquired about Andrade’s immigration status. I will therefore preclude Walgreens from directly inquiring on cross-examination about Andrade’s social security number.” 784 F. Supp. 2d 533, 537 (E.D. Pa. 2011).


Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident and you are worried that you will be unfairly prejudiced, contact the Indianapolis law offices of William “Bill” Hurst or call toll free at 1(800)636-0808 to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney. We have more than 35 years of experience helping accident victims get results and fair financial compensation for their personal injuries.¡Hablamos Español!


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