While the term "motion in limine" isn't widely encountered outside of the judicial system, it is an important concept in both criminal and civil cases. A motion in limine helps establish what evidence can be presented to a jury in a case and can help prevent jurors from reaching a decision based on bias or prejudice. A motion in limine essentially asks the court to decide what evidence is admissible, usually before the trial starts. While there are certainly other methods of establishing the admissibility of evidence, a motion in limine tends to be a particularly powerful safeguard against juror bias.
What is a motion in limine?
A motion in limine can be filed by either party in a legal proceeding, such as in a civil lawsuit or a criminal case. When one party files a motion in limine, they are essentially asking the judge to decide on whether a piece of evidence will be admissible before that evidence is mentioned during the trial. A motion in limine can be filed either in court or in the judge's chamber. While this motion can be filed once the trial begins, in the majority of cases it is filed pretrial. If a motion in limine is granted to the party that files it, then the other party cannot present or refer to the evidence in question. A motion in limine is granted in cases where the evidence is considered irrelevant, inadmissible, or highly prejudicial. If the other party breaks the declaration resulting from an in limine motion and refers to the evidence that has already been deemed inadmissible, then a mistrial will be declared.
Why a motion in limine is different?
A motion in limine is not the only way to have evidence declared inadmissible. For example, if a lawyer asks the defendant about a previous criminal conviction for a misdemeanor, then the defendant's lawyer may be able to object if that criminal conviction has no or little relevance to the case. While a judge can sustain the objection and order the jury to disregard the question, the question has nonetheless already been made and the jurors, despite the judge's instruction, will know that the defendant has a previous criminal record. This information could prejudice them against the defendant. A motion in limine overcomes this problem by ensuring that no mention of the previous conviction is made in the first place. In most jurisdictions, for example, a misdemeanor conviction is not admissible as evidence. By filing a motion in limine before the trial begins, the defendant ensures that the jury does not have a chance to hear about that prior conviction.
Determining what evidence can and cannot be admitted during a trial is vital to helping establish the facts of a case and, ultimately, the outcome of that case. Jurors tend to lack legal training and can be victims of conscious or even unconscious prejudices and biases. Filing a motion in limine helps overcome those risks by limiting evidence that can be presented when such evidence could unfairly disadvantage one party because of its irrelevance, inadmissibility, or prejudicial value.