United States v. Dockins
986 F.2d 888 (1993)

  • Dockins was arrested for illegal possession of a firearm and making false statements.
    • It is illegal for convicted criminals to possess a weapon.
  • At trial, the prosecution attempted to show that Dockins had been convicted of a crime in Colorado under the name Smith.
    • The prosecution had a fingerprint card and writing exemplars from the Smith conviction that purportedly matched Dockins.
      • Implying that Dockins had used a false name when he was arrested in Colorado.
  • Dockins objected to the evidence on the grounds that it had not been authenticated.
    • Authentication is the process where the evidence is proved to be what the introducing party says it is.
      • That’s different from admissibility.  Evidence can be authenticated and still not be admissible.
      • FRE 902 gives rules for self-authenticating documents.
        • Self-authenticating documents are those that are considered authentic on their face.
        • Official records under seal are considered to be self-authenticating.
        • These records had not been properly under seal.
      • FRE 901 gives examples of ways a document can be authenticated.
        • There’s no hard and fast rules, it is up to the discretion of the court.
        • In this case, several policemen from the Denver Police Dept. testified that the documents were genuine.
    • Basically, Dockins was arguing that the fingerprint card and handwriting sample were forgeries, and that there was no way the Court could prove they were the actual documents the prosecution claimed they were.
  • The Trial Court allowed the documents to be admitted into evidence under FRE 901.
  • The Trial Court convicted Dockins.  He appealed on the basis that the evidence had not been properly authenticated.
  • The Appellate Court threw out the evidence.
    • The Appellate Court found that only the custodian of the records could properly testify that the documents were genuine, and that person did not testify at trial.
      • All the policemen could do was look to see if the documents appeared consistent with ones normally used by the Denver police.
      • Had the custodian testified, then the documents would have been properly authenticated under FRE 901.
    • The Appellate Court found that there was plenty of other evidence to convict Dockins anyway, so they upheld the verdict, even without the documents.
      • They found it to be harmless error.