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A doctrine of evidence applied by a court that allows the court to recognize and accept the existence of a particular fact commonly known by persons of average intelligence without establishing its existence by admitting evidence in a civil or criminal action.
When a court takes judicial notice of a certain fact, it obviates the need for parties to prove the fact in court. Ordinarily, facts that relate to a case must be presented to the judge or jury through testimony or tangible evidence. However, if each fact in a case had to be proved through such presentation, the simplest case would take weeks to complete. To avoid burdening the judicial system, all legislatures have approved court rules that allow a court to recognize facts that constitute common knowledge without requiring proof from the parties.
On the federal trial court level, judicial notice is recognized in rule 201 of the federal rules of evidence for U.S. District Courts and Magistrates. Rule 201 provides, in part, that "[a] judicially noticed fact must be one not subject to reasonable dispute in that it is either (1) generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court or (2) capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned."
Under rule 201 a trial court must take judicial notice of a well-known fact at the request of one of the parties, if the court is provided with information supporting the fact. A court also has the option to take judicial notice at its discretion, without a request from a party.
Rule 201 further provides that a court may take judicial notice at any time during a proceeding. If a party objects to the taking of judicial notice, the court must give that party an opportunity to be heard on the issue. In a civil jury trial, the court must inform the jury that it must accept the judicially noticed facts in the case as conclusively proved. In a criminal trial by jury, the court must instruct the jury "that it may, but is not required to, accept as conclusive any fact judicially noticed." All states have statutes that are virtually identical to rule 201.
The most common judicially noticed facts include the location of streets, buildings, and geographic areas; periods of time; business customs; historical events; and federal, state, and international law. Legislatures also maintain statutes that give courts the power to recognize certain facts in specific situations. For example, in Idaho any document affixed with the official seal of the state Public Utilities commission must be judicially noticed by all courts (Idaho Code § 61-209 ). In Hawaii, when a commercial vehicle is cited for violating vehicle equipment regulations, a trial court must take judicial notice of the driver's subordinate position if the driver works for a company that owns the vehicle (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 291-37 ).
The danger of judicial notice is that, if abused, it can deprive the fact finder of the opportunity to decide a contestable fact in a case. In Walker v. Halliburton Services, 654 So. 2d 365 (La. App. 1995), Johnny Walker fell from a tank truck approximately ten feet to a concrete floor. Walker sought workers' compensation benefits for his injuries, and his claim was denied by the Office of Workers' Compensation.
At the application hearing, the hearing officer stated that it was her experience that a soft-tissue injury heals in six weeks. She then took judicial notice of the fact that a soft-tissue injury heals in six weeks—preventing Walker from contesting that proposition—and disallowed Walker's claim. On appeal the Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third Circuit, reversed the decision and ordered the payment of workers' compensation benefits. According to the court, it was a clear error of law for the hearing officer to take judicial notice of such intricate medical knowledge.