Motions in Limine – to Exclude Evidence

What Pro Se Debt Defendants Need to Know about Motions in Limine

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In this article we discuss a sort of motion that we think pro se parties underuse – motions in limine to exclude evidence at trial. They give you a chance to explain how the rule against hearsay prevents documents created out of court from being used as evidence unless there’s an exception. And they give you a chance to show how the plaintiff’s evidence does not meet the exception it’s planning to invoke, the business records exception. On a motion in limine, you can make your arguments before the trial begins, when things are likely to be overlooked in the heat and action of the trial.

What are Motions in Limine?

Motions in Limine are motions filed before trial. “Limine” is Latin for “threshold,” so these motions are usually brought right before trial, when it’s pretty clear what the other side plans to do.

They are usually directed at evidence, but they could also be directed at legal theories or arguments.

Why Use Them?

Like other parts of litigation, they are directed at the legal merits of the case but could have their most powerful impact on negotiations. Thus you bring your motion and attempt to win it for legal reasons, but if you do manage to win it, you will be able to keep the debt collector from putting on the most important parts of its evidence. And if that happens, it may give up without your needing to go to the trial at all.

Thus motions in limine can be very significant turning points. Or they can simplify matters for you at trial if that happens.

There’s another reason for pro se parties to use motions in limine. As a pro se party in a system run by lawyers and judges, it can be hard to get listened to. Judges may or may not mean to pay more attention to lawyers, but they themselves WERE lawyers, their friends are lawyers, and lawyers are the ones they see day in and day out.

They naturally pay more attention to them for just those reasons.

And then there’s the fact that lawyers understand the system and are trained in it. They can do dumb things, of course, but usually they don’t. Judges know that, and they know that pro se parties lack this training, so they naturally take what you say with a grain of salt.

And then there’s the fact that trials move very quickly, and the judge will be watching the clock very carefully. Will everything you say get heard? Not at trial.

You have a much better chance to get heard at a hearing on a motion to exclude. That will give you a chance to make an impression on the judge, explain some of the legal concepts behind the case, and make your arguments regarding evidence at a time when the court is freer to give what you say some thought. And it helps the judge get to know you a little bit and to be reminded of certain rules of evidence.

All of these things are absolutely vital to your chances of success.

What Motions in Limine are NOT

Motions in limine are not motions for summary judgment. That is, you could argue in a motion in limine that the other side should not be able to introduce certain evidence or make certain arguments, but a motion in limine is not the place to ask for a ruling on the entire case in your favor. For that you need a motion for summary judgment, and this comes much earlier in the process.

What Happens after a Motion in Limine?

What you’re hoping for is a ruling on the spot that the debt collector will not be able to use certain evidence or arguments, and that does happen sometimes. More often, perhaps, the court will withhold its ruling until the debt collector tries to use the evidence. The theory behind this is that the court wants to judge from the context of the case whether the evidence is necessary and fair.

In reality, courts should not wait on most of the issues you’re likely to move on. That’s because your arguments will likely be addressed to the legal admissibility and sufficiency of the evidence, and no amount of case context can substitute for presenting the necessary bases for the business records exception, for example. But courts can be reluctant to rule on a motion that destroys one party’s chances of winning before trial.

Timing

While you could bring a motion in limine fairly early in a case, the court will likely not rule on it before the eve of trial. And either the court will order, or your local rules may provide, a date before which motions in limine must be brought.

In other words, there’s going to be a deadline for filing your motion. You need to know that deadline and abide by it. Most typically what happens is the court wants lists of witnesses and exhibits a week or two before trial, followed by a (final) pretrial conference. You would write your motions in limine in time to be heard at that final pretrial conference.

Work on Motion in Limine

In a debt case everything about their case is predictable, even if you don’t know for sure what they’ve got.

Where the person suing you is a debt collector, you know that the debt collector’s case depends on getting some bills that it did not create into evidence. You should know (from discovery) exactly what those bills are and where they came from long before trial. And you also need to know how they plan to get them into evidence. You find these things out through the discovery process.

Rulings on Motions in Limine are not Permanent

Rulings on motions in limine are subject to change. The court could grant your motion before trial and then change its mind, or vice-versa. That means you will still need to object at trial – or be prepared to argue even if you won – in order to protect your rights. And if you lost, you should take another shot at it. Don’t be intimidated – the court will tell you if it is willing to hear your arguments or not.

What makes motions in limine useful is that they give you a chance to make your arguments in the cool light of reason rather than the heat of trial. That might be your best chance to get heard for the pro se.

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Motions in Limine

Motions in Limine are pre-trial motions that serve a specific purpose. That is, they are motions designed to preview issues regarding whether certain evidence will be allowed (“admissible”) for the trial and under what circumstances it would or will be admitted. Typically, a court’s final pretrial order will set the time limit and schedule for motions in limine, but even if it doesn’t, you may want to file one.

Remember, they are filed in contemplation of trial – they are not a motion to file in some more general sense. If there is a motion for summary judgment, for example, you don’t file a motion in limine – you oppose the motion and object to the evidence in that motion. You would make all the same arguments, perhaps, but in a different context.

Remember that a court may, or may not, rule on a motion in limine before trial. The idea is to present the objection in a systematic way under conditions that allow the judge to think about it outside of the heat of the moment. It often happens that you’ll present a motion in limine and the judge won’t rule on it because the context of the trial isn’t clear until things start happening in trial. No matter. Make your best argument in the motion and argument and be prepared for whatever the judge does. Pay close attention to what the judge thinks matters regarding whether the evidence will be admitted, and be prepared to argue at trial that those conditions haven’t happened (so the evidence shouldn’t be admitted).

Finally, remember that any ruling by the judge before trial is not necessarily binding at trial. Thus, even if you lose your motion to exclude in limine, you will want to object at trial and take another shot at it. You’d be surprised how often the judge will change his mind. And that means you also have to be prepared for the other side to do the same – and you must remember that in order to preserve your rights you probably have to make your objections again at trial. So think of the motion in limine as a sort of warm up.

 

Selecting a Jury

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Arguing Motions in Court

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Should you try to hide evidence from the debt collector?

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Rule against Hearsay Evidence

The Rule against Hearsay is as close to a silver bullet as you get in debt litigation. I’ve often said that debt collectors don’t have and can’t get (cost effectively) what they need to beat you. The rule against hearsay is the rule that lets you keep the records they do have out of evidence.

A Critical Definition

Hearsay is an out of court statement offered for the truth of whatever was said. That is, a statement that was made (or written, usually in debt cases) somewhere other than a courtroom, under oath.

For example, if you testified that “Mr. Smith said the dog was white,” this would be hearsay if you wanted the jury to believe the dog was white. That’s because in order to believe that, the jury would have to believe Mr. Smith – and he hasn’t testified under oath in the presence of the jury.

If you testified that “Mr. Smith said the dog was white” would not be hearsay if you wanted to prove that Mr. Smith could talk, though, because in that case the jury could evaluate your statement that he did talk and would not need to form a belief as to whether the statement was correct.

In debt collection cases, the debt collectors often seek to use affidavits or business records that say the debt was a certain amount, that certain procedures were followed, etc. But these are only helpful if you believe the records – and thus the records are hearsay. To keep the judge from allowing the records to count, you must object to their admission. And you will probably have to be prepared to argue they aren’t subject to the “business records exception.”