As Wikipedia explains, under the laws of evidence in effect in the United States,
a presumption of a particular fact can be made without the aid of proof in some situations. . . . The invocation of a presumption shifts the burden of proof from one party to the opposing party in a court trial. . . .
This post is about a case in which the prosecution was allowed to rely, at least in part, on a presumption concerning a printout from a “web page . . . found on the Internet.” People v. Beckley, 2010 WL 2293410 (California Court of Appeals 2010).
After being convicted of first degree murder and attempted premeditated murder in violation of California law, Darrell Amont Finn appealed his convictions. People v. Beckley, supra. (Albert Beckley, Jr. was also convicted of these crimes and also appealed, but we’re only concerned with an issue Finn raised on appeal.)
This is how the Court of Appeals summarized the facts in the case:
In late April 2007, the Mahone brothers, Matthew and Jamal, attended a party in Compton where Jamal got into a fight. After the fight, Jamal agreed to meet his opponent for a rematch in Southside Park, a park claimed by the Southside Crips as their territory. . . . The fight lasted about nine minutes. Jamal lost. Afterward, Matthew fought with Beckley and knocked him out. . . .
Approximately two weeks later, while walking home, Matthew saw Beckley and Finn near a liquor store. Beckley called out to Matthew, `Southside Compton Crips.’ Matthew walked away and did not respond. He knew Beckley and Finn only by their gang monikers, `Bluebird’ and `Little Freaky.’
On May 14, 2007, at 7:30 p.m., Matthew and Jamal were outside their residence. . . . A car passed by twice before stopping. . . The brothers spoke with the two female occupants of the car. . . After the women drove off, Matthew [said they should] go inside because he thought they were being set up for a drive-by shooting.
Within minutes, a . . . car similar to the one driven by the woman drove by. Finn was the driver and Beckley . . . was a passenger. Beckley . . . pulled himself partly out of the rear window and fired at Matthew [and] Jamal. . . . Jamal died from a gunshot wound to his chest. . . . Matthew was unharmed.
People v. Beckley, supra. At trial, the prosecution’s gang expert, testified that Beckley and Finn “were members of the Southside Compton Crips” and that in his opinion, the “drive-by shooting was in retaliation for the fight in the park” and was “`directed at members of the Neighborhood Compton Crip street gang.’” People v. Beckley, supra.
Beckley’s defense was “based on alibi and mistaken identity.” He testified that he had been a Southside Compton Crips member but denied “membership after he began dating Kyeera Fulmore in . . . 2006.” People v. Beckley, supra. Beckley also denied “that he killed Jamal, had fought with Matthew at the park or had seen him at a liquor store.” People v. Beckley, supra. Beckley’s girlfriend testified and denied Beckley was a member of the gang; another woman testified and claimed another person was the shooter. People v. Beckley, supra.
To rebut the testimony denying “Beckley's gang involvement, Detective Schoonmaker testified regarding gang-related evidence he recovered from the MySpace.com internet accounts of Finn and Beckley.” People v. Beckley, supra.
As evidence that the defendants belonged to the Southside Compton Crips, the prosecution offered a purported roster of the gang's members, including Beckley and Finn, which appeared on a web page that Detective Schoonmaker printed from the Internet. The trial court admitted the evidence over the defendants' objections. Only Finn has pursued the admissibility of the roster on appeal. He argues that the roster was `unauthenticated’ because there was no evidence as to who created it, what it was intended to represent, whether it did in fact represent what it was intended to represent, and whether its creator had any basis in personal knowledge for including the names on the list.
People v. Beckley, supra.
In ruling on Finn’s argument, the Court of Appeals first noted that the “printout is presumed to be an accurate representation of the web page Detective Schoonmaker found on the internet.” People v. Beckley, supra. That presumption arose under California Evidence Code § 1552(a), which provides as follows:
A printed representation of computer information . . . is presumed to be an accurate representation of the computer information . . . that it purports to represent. This presumption is a presumption affecting the burden of producing evidence. If a party to an action introduces evidence that a printed representation of computer information . . . is inaccurate or unreliable, the party introducing the printed representation into evidence has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, that the printed representation is an accurate representation of the existence and content of the computer information . . . it purports to represent.
In other words, the statute creates a rebuttable presumption that a printout of “computer information”, such as the content of a web page, accurately represents the content of that page. As Wikipedia explains, a rebuttable presumption “is an assumption made by a court, one that is taken to be true unless someone comes forward to contest it and prove otherwise.” Or, as another site explains, a rebuttable presumption can be
overturned only if the evidence contradicting it is true and if a reasonable person of average intelligence could logically conclude from the evidence that the presumption is no longer valid. For example, a person who has been judicially declared incompetent is presumed incompetent unless there is sufficient proof, usually in the form of medical testimony, that the person has regained competency.
Under the statute, then, the printout was presumed to accurately represent the content of the web page at issue unless and until Finn produced evidence sufficient to rebut that presumption. He does not seem to have done so; maybe he didn’t attempt to do so. It’s important to note, though § 1552, merely creates a presumption that the document is an “accurate copy of what was on the computer screen at the time it was printed. . . . [T]here is nothing in this section allowing a party to avoid the independent authentication requirement.” Kohler v. Kindred Nursing Centers West LLC, 2010 WL 709182 (California Court of Appeals 2010).
Therefore, after it held that the printout was a presumptively accurate representation of the page containing the roster, the Court of Appeals explained that the issue was not
whether the computer's printer could be trusted to reliably print out what was on the computer's screen or stored on some site but whether the content of what was on the site was reliable. We conclude that the evidence was insufficient to show that the writing was what it purported to be -- a roster of the Southside Compton Crips.
People v. Beckley, supra. The Court of Appeals, then, is pointing out that the real issue is whether the printout had been authenticated; as I’ve explained in earlier posts, to authenticate evidence the proponent of that evidence (the party offering it into evidence) has to produce evidence showing that it is what it purports to be.
The Court of Appeals explained why the prosecution had not authenticated the printout of the purported gang roster:
Schoonmaker claimed the writing was a roster of the members of the Southside Compton Crips. Schoonmaker admitted that he did not know who authored the roster but testified that he believed `that is a roster of Southside Compton Crip gang members that they themselves put together.’ This evidence was insufficient to authenticate the document as a roster of the Southside Compton Crips. Schoonmaker admitted that he did not know who created the list nor did he explain the basis for his assertion that the gang members `themselves put [it] together.’ Moreover, he offered no evidence that the person who created the list had any personal knowledge of the members of the gang or that the persons named in the list were current gang members. Accordingly, the court should have excluded the purported roster of gang members.
People v. Beckley, supra. The Court of Appeals also found that the admission of the purported roster was harmless error:
The court's error does not require reversal of Finn's conviction because the information contained on the list was cumulative. There was other evidence of Finn's membership in the gang, including his own admission, only one month before the shooting, made to police when interviewed . . . and the testimony of Detective Valencia that Finn `has been seen and congregated with other members of this particular street gang.’ Evidence also showed he had a body tattoo indicating affiliation with the gang.
People v. Beckley, supra.