(a) Excluding Witnesses. At a party’s request, the court must order witnesses excluded from the courtroom so that they cannot hear other witnesses’ testimony. Or the court may do so on its own. But this rule does not authorize excluding:
(1) a party who is a natural person;
(2) one officer or employee of a party that is not a natural person if that officer or employee has been designated as the party’s representative by its attorney;
(3) any person whose presence a party shows to be essential to presenting the party’s claim or defense; or
(4) a person authorized by statute to be present.
(b) Additional Orders to Prevent Disclosing and Accessing Testimony. An order under (a) operates only to exclude witnesses from the courtroom. But the court may also, by order:
(1) prohibit disclosure of trial testimony to witnesses who are excluded from the courtroom; and
(2) prohibit excluded witnesses from accessing trial testimony.
Summary and Explanation
Federal Rule of Evidence 615 deals with the sequestration of witnesses during a trial. Here’s a summary and explanation:
- Sequestration of Witnesses: This rule gives the court the power to order the sequestration of witnesses. Sequestration means that witnesses are kept out of the courtroom when they are not testifying, preventing them from hearing the testimony of other witnesses.
- Purpose of Sequestration: The main goal is to prevent witnesses from being influenced by the testimony of others and to discourage collusion. It helps to ensure that each witness’s testimony is based on their own knowledge and recollections, rather than what they learn from others during the trial.
- Exceptions: The rule outlines certain exceptions where sequestration is not required. These exceptions typically include:
- A party who is a natural person;
- An officer or employee of a party that is not a natural person, designated as its representative by its attorney;
- A person whose presence is shown by a party to be essential to presenting the party’s claim or defense;
- A person authorized by statute to be present.
- Enforcement and Discretion: The enforcement of this rule is at the discretion of the court. The judge decides whether to order sequestration and how strictly to enforce it.
Rule 615 is a critical tool in ensuring the integrity of witness testimony. By isolating witnesses from the influence of others’ testimonies, it helps to preserve the independent and unbiased nature of each witness’s account, thereby enhancing the reliability of the evidence presented in the trial.
(Pub. L. 93–595, §1, Jan. 2, 1975, 88 Stat. 1937; Mar. 2, 1987, eff. Oct. 1, 1987; Apr. 25, 1988, eff. Nov. 1, 1988; Pub. L. 100–690, title VII, §7075(a), Nov. 18, 1988, 102 Stat. 4405; Apr. 24, 1998, eff. Dec. 1, 1998; Apr. 26, 2011, eff. Dec. 1, 2011.)
Notes of Advisory Committee on Proposed Rules
The efficacy of excluding or sequestering witnesses has long been recognized as a means of discouraging and exposing fabrication, inaccuracy, and collusion. 6 Wigmore §§1837–1838. The authority of the judge is admitted, the only question being whether the matter is committed to his discretion or one of right. The rule takes the latter position. No time is specified for making the request.
Several categories of persons are excepted. (1) Exclusion of persons who are parties would raise serious problems of confrontation and due process. Under accepted practice they are not subject to exclusion. 6 Wigmore §1841. (2) As the equivalent of the right of a natural-person party to be present, a party which is not a natural person is entitled to have a representative present. Most of the cases have involved allowing a police officer who has been in charge of an investigation to remain in court despite the fact that he will be a witness. United States v. Infanzon, 235 F.2d 318 (2d Cir. 1956); Portomene v. United States, 221 F.2d 582 (5th Cir. 1955); Powell v. United States, 208 F.2d 618 (6th Cir. 1953); Jones v. United States, 252 F.Supp. 781 (W.D.Okl. 1966). Designation of the representative by the attorney rather than by the client may at first glance appear to be an inversion of the attorney-client relationship, but it may be assumed that the attorney will follow the wishes of the client, and the solution is simple and workable. See California Evidence Code §777. (3) The category contemplates such persons as an agent who handled the transaction being litigated or an expert needed to advise counsel in the management of the litigation. See 6 Wigmore §1841, n. 4.
Notes of Committee on the Judiciary, Senate Report No. 93–1277
Many district courts permit government counsel to have an investigative agent at counsel table throughout the trial although the agent is or may be a witness. The practice is permitted as an exception to the rule of exclusion and compares with the situation defense counsel finds himself in—he always has the client with him to consult during the trial. The investigative agent’s presence may be extremely important to government counsel, especially when the case is complex or involves some specialized subject matter. The agent, too, having lived with the case for a long time, may be able to assist in meeting trial surprises where the best-prepared counsel would otherwise have difficulty. Yet, it would not seem the Government could often meet the burden under rule 615 of showing that the agent’s presence is essential. Furthermore, it could be dangerous to use the agent as a witness as early in the case as possible, so that he might then help counsel as a nonwitness, since the agent’s testimony could be needed in rebuttal. Using another, nonwitness agent from the same investigative agency would not generally meet government counsel’s needs.
This problem is solved if it is clear that investigative agents are within the group specified under the second exception made in the rule, for “an officer or employee of a party which is not a natural person designated as its representative by its attorney.” It is our understanding that this was the intention of the House committee. It is certainly this committee’s construction of the rule.
Notes of Advisory Committee on Rules—1987 Amendment
The amendment is technical. No substantive change is intended.
Notes of Advisory Committee on Rules—1988 Amendment
The amendment is technical. No substantive change is intended.
Committee Notes on Rules—1998 Amendment
The amendment is in response to: (1) the Victim’s Rights and Restitution Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. §10606, which guarantees, within certain limits, the right of a crime victim to attend the trial; and (2) the Victim Rights Clarification Act of 1997 (18 U.S.C. §3510).
Amendment by Public Law
1988 —Pub. L. 100–690, which directed amendment of rule by inserting “a” before “party which is not a natural person.”, could not be executed because the words “party which is not a natural person.” did not appear. However, the word “a” was inserted by the intervening amendment by the Court by order dated Apr. 25, 1988, eff. Nov. 1, 1988.
Committee Notes on Rules—2011 Amendment
The language of Rule 615 has been amended as part of the restyling of the Evidence Rules to make them more easily understood and to make style and terminology consistent throughout the rules. These changes are intended to be stylistic only. There is no intent to change any result in any ruling on evidence admissibility.
Committee Notes on Rules—2023 Amendment
Rule 615 has been amended for two purposes:
(1) Most importantly, the amendment clarifies that the court, in entering an order under this rule, may also prohibit excluded witnesses from learning about, obtaining, or being provided with trial testimony. Many courts have found that a “Rule 615 order” extends beyond the courtroom, to prohibit excluded witnesses from obtaining access to or being provided with trial testimony. But the terms of the rule did not so provide; and other courts have held that a Rule 615 order was limited to exclusion of witnesses from the trial. On the one hand, the courts extending Rule 615 beyond courtroom exclusion properly recognized that the core purpose of the rule is to prevent witnesses from tailoring their testimony to the evidence presented at trial—and that purpose can only be effectuated by regulating out-of-court exposure to trial testimony. See United States v. Robertson, 895 F.3d 1206, 1215 (9th Cir. 2018) (“The danger that earlier testimony could improperly shape later testimony is equally present whether the witness hears that testimony in court or reads it from a transcript.”). On the other hand, a rule extending an often vague “Rule 615 order” outside the courtroom raised questions of fair notice, given that the text of the rule itself was limited to exclusion of witnesses from the courtroom.
An order under subdivision (a) operates only to exclude witnesses from the courtroom. This includes exclusion of witnesses from a virtual trial. Subdivision (b) emphasizes that the court may by order extend the sequestration beyond the courtroom, to prohibit those subject to the order from disclosing trial testimony to excluded witnesses, as well as to directly prohibit excluded witnesses from trying to access trial testimony. Such an extension is often necessary to further the rule’s policy of preventing tailoring of testimony.
The rule gives the court discretion to determine what requirements, if any, are appropriate in a particular case to protect against the risk that witnesses excluded from the courtroom will obtain trial testimony.
Nothing in the language of the rule bars a court from prohibiting counsel from disclosing trial testimony to a sequestered witness. To the extent that an order governing counsel’s disclosure of trial testimony to prepare a witness raises questions of professional responsibility and effective assistance of counsel, as well as the right to confrontation in criminal cases, the court should address those questions on a case-by-case basis.
(2) Second, the rule has been amended to clarify that the exception from exclusion for entity representatives is limited to one designated representative per entity. This limitation, which has been followed by most courts, generally provides parity for individual and entity parties. The rule does not prohibit the court from exercising discretion to allow an entity-party to swap one representative for another as the trial progresses, so long as only one witness-representative is exempt at any one time. If an entity seeks to have more than one witness-representative protected from exclusion, it needs to show under subdivision (a)(3) that the witness is essential to presenting the party’s claim or defense. Nothing in this amendment prohibits a court from exempting from exclusion multiple witnesses if they are found essential under (a)(3).