Discretion In Allowing Evidence Under The Open Door Doctrine

In use of excessive force case, while evidence of the police department’s standard operating procedures and whether the procedure was violated was irrelevant, trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the “open door” doctrine did not compel admission of the evidence, in Tanberg v. Sholtis, 401 F.3d 1151 (10th Cir. 2005)

Under the “open door” doctrine, a party may admit evidence that may otherwise be irrelevant or inadmissible. The doctrine is used to cure any unfair advantage one party may obtain by introducing evidence that may provide a misimpression. As with other evidence, the admissibility of evidence under this doctrine lies within the discretion of the trial court. This point was noted in a civil action alleging an officer used excessive force.

In the case, the plaintiffs filed a civil rights suit against an arresting officer for use of excessive force after charges were dismissed that they resisted arrest, disobeyed a police officer, and were in a park after closing. At trial, the plaintiffs sought to introduce evidence of the city’s standard operating procedure (SOP) to show the officer violated the SOP. The trial court excluded this evidence as irrelevant on the federal claims, and under FRE 403 for its potential to cause jury confusion on the state law claims. The trial court granted the defense motion for judgment as a matter of law on the state and federal claims for false arrest, and the jury found for the defendant on the claims of excessive force and assault and battery.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the exclusion of the SOP evidence on several grounds, including under the open door doctrine. On the federal claims, the SOP had little bearing on whether the force used was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. On the state law claims, the circuit agreed that the evidence was properly excluded based on its potential to cause jury confusion concerning the legal claims and administrative standards.

However, the plaintiffs argued that they should have been permitted to introduce evidence concerning the SOP after the defendant’s expert referred to the defendant’s compliance and that his behavior “conformed to his training.” The plaintiffs wanted “to test the bases of the expert’s opinion that Officer Sholtis’s behavior conformed to his training through cross-examination regarding the SOPs.” Initially the trial court agreed that the defense may have opened the door to this issue but requested that the plaintiffs’ counsel submit proposed questions on this issue. When counsel failed to do so in a timely manner, the trial court excluded the evidence.

The circuit noted that evidence which may be admitted under the open door doctrine does not compel admission of the evidence, “and the matter lies within the discretion of the trial court.” Tanberg, 401 F.3d at 1166. The circuit questioned whether the SOP could be introduced as rebuttal evidence. Because the language of the SOP was general and similar to the federal standards for excessive force, the admission of the evidence by the plaintiffs “would have added nothing to the evidence Plaintiffs were allowed to adduce.” Tanberg, 401 F.3d at 1166.

There are many examples where evidence is admitted under the open door doctrine. The Tanberg case reiterates that evidence under this doctrine lies with the discretion of the trial court, which is also the case with most evidence.

Federal Rules of Evidence