Sometimes, errors can occur in court. They must be objected to as soon as possible in order for the judge to pass a ruling on it. In Virginia, this is called the contemporaneous objection rule. If there is no objection at the time the error is made, then there are only several actions that can be taken to amend the error in the Virginia criminal appeals process.
The contemporaneous objection rule is the rule that says an attorney in Virginia must make an objection to the ruling of the trial court when the issue happens and the objection must be with reasonable specificity. If the objection is not made at that time or is not a sufficient objection, then the issue is only appealable for one of three reasons: if there is good cause for why the objection was made, if the ends of justice require that the issue be appealable, or if the court had no jurisdiction to hear the case.
All of these are very limited exceptions that only come in rare circumstances. Good cause generally means that the attorney for the appellant did not make an objection because there was not an ability to do so.
For example, any party has an absolute right to make a record at trial. But if a judge stepped in and became frustrated, they might say that if an attorney kept objecting to a testimony, then they would be held in contempt. However, if the testimony was improperly proffered and hurt the defendant, then that attorney has an absolute right to make that objection.
If a Virginia judge’s threat prevented an objection from happening, that would be good cause for why an objection was not made, and so an appellant court will be able to take that into consideration. The ends of justice exception is also very rare. This occurs when refusing to hear an appeal would result in a “clear miscarriage of justice.” There has to be evidence that miscarriage of justice has occurred by not allowing the objection, not just that it might have occurred.
There is no set standard for what this means. Virginia courts looks at it as an “I know it when I see it” type of occurrence. An example might be when the record indicates that the defendant’s conduct could not have constituted a crime and yet the court still convicted the defendant.
For instance, say a person was convicted on the testimony of one eye witness. One eye witness was called, who says that she saw the person running from the scene. This is the only evidence presented by the prosecution. If the defense then calls their doctor to testify that their legs were broken, thus making them unable to run.
If the doctor’s testimony is not challenged at all by the prosecution, the finding that the defense has committed that crime would likely not stand up as being proved by sufficient evidence. In a rare circumstance like that, even if no objection was made to the conviction, the court may still weigh in and say that the ends of justice require that the conviction be overturned.
The third exception is the “no jurisdiction” exception. This would only come into play in civil places where a Virginia court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear a case, such as a disagreement between parties over a contract where the contract requires that the parties go to arbitration. If the court is hearing the case instead of an arbitrator, then that court’s ruling would not necessarily be valid, even if no objection was made to that ruling.
The rationale behind it is that judicial economy requires that the trial court have the opportunity to make an informed ruling on the issues presented in order to prevent needless appeals and reversals. Out of fairness to the trial court, it also prevents an appellant court from reversing a trial court on an issue that was not presented to it. The trial court cannot make a mistake in answering a question if that question was asked.
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