Circumstantial Authentication of Email Evidence Based on Content and Context — Authenticating Testimony Need Not “Be Free from Weakness or Doubt” — Deficiencies in Chain of Custody for Factfinder

State v. Ruiz, 2014 Mich. App. LEXIS 855 (Mich. Ct. App. May 15, 2014):

Defendant next argues that the trial court erred by admitting e-mail records into evidence. Defendant objected at trial to the admissibility of the e-mail evidence in Exhibit 13, but made no objection to the admissibility of other e-mails. We review the preserved objection to the trial court's ruling for an abuse of discretion. People v Orr, 275 Mich App 587, 588; 739 NW2d 385 (2007). We review the unpreserved evidentiary challenges for plain error.

We conclude the trial court was within its discretion in admitting Exhibit 13. We further conclude that there was no plain error in the trial court's rulings on the other e-mail evidence. The authentication of the evidence is governed by MRE 901, which states in relevant part:

   (a) General Provision. The requirement of authentication or identification as a condition precedent  [*9] to admissibility is satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims.

  (b) Illustrations. By way of illustration only, and not by way of limitation, the following are examples of authentication or identification conforming with the requirements of this rule:

(1) Testimony of Witness With Knowledge. Testimony that a matter is what it is claimed to be.

* * *

(4) Distinctive Characteristics and the Like. Appearance, contents, substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics, taken in conjunction with circumstances.

* * *

(9) Process or System. Evidence describing a process or system used to produce a result and showing that the process or system produces an accurate result.

In determining whether evidence has been sufficiently authenticated, "[i]t is axiomatic that proposed evidence need not tell the whole story of a case, nor need it be free of weakness or doubt. It need only meet the minimum requirements for admissibility." People v McDade, 301 Mich App 343, 353; 836 NW2d 266 (2013) (citation omitted). "Beyond that, our system trusts the finder of fact to sift through the evidence and weigh it properly." People v Berkey, 437 Mich 40, 52; 467 NW2d 6 (1991).  [*10] As a related matter, "the admission of real evidence does not require a perfect chain of custody." People v White, 208 Mich App 126, 130; 527 NW2d 34 (1994). Rather, "any deficiency in the chain of custody goes to the weight of the evidence rather than its admissibility once the proffered evidence is shown to a reasonable degree of certainty to be what its proponent claims." Id. at 130-131.

In this case, the e-mails in question were offered by the prosecutor, who asserted that they were e-mails sent by defendant to Mieras and Pegues relating to the planning of the arson. The e-mail in Exhibit 13 was introduced during Mieras's testimony. He testified that the document appeared to be identical to an e-mail he received from a sender named Ashley Kasniak. Mieras testified that he knew that the e-mail was from defendant because defendant told him to expect an e-mail relating to the arson.

Mieras's identification of the e-mail as one sent by defendant, coupled with the surrounding context, was sufficient to authenticate the e-mail under MRE 901. By way of analogy, this Court previously recognized that "a telegram may be authenticated if its contents and the surrounding circumstances indicate  [*11] that the information it discloses is uniquely within the purported sender's knowledge . . . ." People v Thompson, 111 Mich App 324, 328; 314 NW2d 606 (1981).

To the extent defendant argues that there were breaks in the chain of custody because police no longer had access to the e-mail account, his claim is without merit. A police officer detailed the process by which he created the screen shots, printed them, and stored them on a disc. This evidence was sufficient to establish a basic chain of custody for the evidence. And, in any event, breaks in the chain of custody relate to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility. See White, 208 Mich App at 130. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting Exhibit 13 into evidence.

The other exhibits at issue were also properly authenticated. Both Mieras and Pegues identified defendant as the sender based on the circumstances and content. Given this testimony, there was sufficient evidence that the documents were what the prosecution purported them to be as required by MRE 901(a). Thus, defendant has not shown plain error related to the admission of these exhibits.

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