By The Honorable Earl G. Penrod
WITNESSES ARE OFTEN ASKED QUESTIONS about the timing or length of an event, and an unwary witness may be inadvertently tripped up or caught off guard. There are a number of common expressions used in informal communication referring to the passage of time that are not meant to be taken literally. For example, in normal discourse, someone may say “just a second” or “in a minute” or “at that moment” to indicate a short but undefined period of time. Because such expressions are common, they find their way into courtroom testimony, even occasionally from law enforcement personnel and other professionals.
Using such expressions or testifying in nonspecific terms regarding time may not always cause a problem, especially if the time or length of events is not in dispute. However, even if the timing of events is not crucial, attorneys may cross examine about such testimony to try to challenge the officer’s credibility or to show that the officer was less than precise in the performance of duties.
It is always preferable for a witness to be as specific as possible on time, but if the person does not have a record, report, log or specific memory to support the detail of the testimony, the witness is well served to testify in more generalized terms without the use of any time related idioms or non-specific terms.
“Upon receiving the dispatch, I activated my lights and siren, headed toward the location, and arrived in approximately 4-5 minutes.”
“Upon receiving the dispatch, I activated my lights and siren, headed toward the location, and arrived in a matter of minutes.”
“Upon receiving the dispatch, I activated my lights and siren, headed toward the location, and was there almost immediately.”
All three statements convey the same basic facts but the first example is preferable if the witness is able to provide the degree of specificity set forth. However, the more general language in the second example is recommended if the officer isn’t fully confident about the details. Finally, the third statement is not preferable because the word “immediately” is too indefinite and can have a variety of meanings
Tip to testify: Be as specific as possible when referring to a period of time, and avoid time-related idioms or non-specific terms.
The Honorable Earl G. Penrod is a Judge of the Gibson Superior Court in Indiana.