Factual Stipulations in Criminal Trials
A stipulation is an agreement between adverse parties as to the definition or identification of a statement or pieces of evidence that are material to the case. Trial judges typically accept stipulations of fact presented by parties. However, it is within the trial judge’s discretion to reject the stipulation if the fact sought to be admitted is not relevant or constitutes a legal conclusion. When the trial court accepts a stipulated fact, the party who had the burden of proof with respect to the stipulated fact is relieved from presenting a foundation to establish that fact during the defendant’s trial.
The accepted stipulation actually amounts to a waiver of the issue of truth concerning the fact. A jury would be instructed to accept the fact as true. Any evidence that would either establish or rebut the fact should be excluded. The trial judge must be cautious to accept only the stipulated fact, and not other aspects that might be affiliated with the fact, as true. For example, the defendant may stipulate to the fact that he had a drink on the night in question but did not stipulate that he was legally intoxicated when an officer stopped him. The trial judge must be careful to instruct the jury that the defendant only stipulated to the fact that he had one drink and not that he was intoxicated when the officer stopped him.
Either party may reject an offer to stipulate to a fact. The prosecutor is not required to accept an offer to stipulate when the defendant has entered a not guilty plea. The prosecutor is entitled to prove every element of the offense charged. The prosecutor is also not required to rely upon the defendant’s factual stipulation. However, if the prosecutor rejects the defendant’s offer to stipulate and thereafter presents evidence establishing the fact, the presentation of the prosecutor’s evidence establishing a certain fact may be reversed on appeal. For example, if the defendant is charged with murder and he admits that his victim was murdered and was lying on the ground in the kitchen and the prosecutor goes forward with presenting photographs of the victim, an appellate court may find that the trial court erred in admitting the photographs because the defendant stipulated to the fact that the photographs intended to prove.
The trial judge has the discretion to accept or reject the defendant’s stipulation. The trial judge may exercise discretion when the defendant’s stipulation offer is unequivocal and the prosecutor’s evidence is highly prejudicial, as with the example of the victim photographs mentioned above. The trial judge should accept or consider accepting an offer to stipulate by the defendant or prosecution if the stipulation constitutes the functional equivalent of or substitute for presenting proof of other evidence.