Relevance and the Rule 403 Analysis

We’re going back to basics today, examining relevance and the analysis necessary when certain evidence has potential prejudicial value. According to Minnesota Rule of Evidence 401, “relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.  However, not all relevant evidence should be admitted in a particular proceeding.  Minnesota Rule of Evidence 403 provides that “[a]lthough relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”  Rule 403 is drafted to favor admission of relevant evidence, since the dangers noted must “substantially” outweigh the probative value of the evidence in order to warrant exclusion.  See State v. Schulz, 691 N.W.2d 474, 478 (Minn. 2005)

A court begins the Rule 403 analysis by assessing the probative value of the evidence at issue.  Evidence has probative value when it advances the inquiry to some degree. Schulz, 691 N.W.2d at 478.  A piece of evidence is relevant if it contributes to a logical inference that assists the jury in deciding a question presented.  See id.  Probative evidence can include obviously relevant items such as admissions of guilt, as well as evidence that is presented primarily to confirm the testimony of a witness, enhancing his or her credibility. See Schulz, 691 N.W.2d at 478see also State v. Smith, A11-1686 (Minn. App. 2012) (unpublished opinion).

The second part of the Rule 403 analysis is to determine whether the danger of unfair prejudice (or another danger named in the rule) substantially outweighs the probative value of the evidence.  Unfair prejudice does not result from all damaging evidence; rather, in order to require exclusion, evidence must attempt to persuade by illegitimate means, giving one party an unfair advantage.  See Schulz, 691 N.W.2d at 478.  Even highly damaging evidence is admissible if it is highly probative on an issue of material fact.  Id.

Ultimately, the decision to admit evidence is rarely made without some attention to Rule 403, and practitioners often advance Rule 403 arguments as a last resort attempt to exclude evidence. For these reasons, a good working knowledge of the Rule 403 analysis is vital for trial attorneys.