Georgia codes may get makeover nearly 150 years in the making

Rules for trial evidence extremely outdated

The blue and the gray were recent history when Georgia last wrote down just what, and how, evidence could be introduced at trials.

Not surprisingly, rules from 1868 don't easily cover how to admit phone calls or e-mail -- or even still photographs -- into evidence. A bill in the House would modernize state code and put Georgia on par with 42 other states by adopting federal rules of evidence.

The proposal caps more than 20 years of  lawmakers and the State Bar of Georgia trying to update the code. It is a repeat of a bill approved by the state House last year, which did not get a floor vote in the state Senate.

“Under this [proposal], someone can show a document from a computer and say it was done on a computer,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, the Sandy Springs Republican who is sponsoring House Bill 24.

That can be done today, of course. But it means both sides in any trial have to argue before a judge about anything not handwritten, since court rulings and not code dictate what can get into evidence.

The lack of uniformity from the antiquated code can lead to the occasional weird, or even bad, outcome at trial.

Among the strange possibilities: A witness could submit a notarized written report of their experience and not have to show up in court. Current codes were written before depositions were common and travel easy.

A few years ago, a conviction on a road-rage case was overturned because of the outdated code. The man argued that, although he had identified himself and admitted his crime during a phone interview, state codes didn’t account for that as proof in the trial, said Paul Milich, a law professor at Georgia State University.

“Phone, digital technology, computers -- these are all words you’ll see for the first time,” he said of the rewrite of state code.

The bill falls short of a full rewrite. The goal is to update old writings, so newer evidence laws such as the Rape Shield Law will stay as is.

The law, written in 1976 and updated in 1989, blocks defense attorneys from entering a victim’s sexual history into evidence in most cases.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who was Senate president pro tem when the Legislature considered rewriting the state’s rules of evidence in 1991, drew fire in the fall campaign for that effort’s attempt to change the shield law.

“We’ve had 20 years to interpret the shield law, and it’s a good law,” Willard said. “The rest, well, they are so archaic they need help.”