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What is the Corpus Delicti Rule? How Does it Apply in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Jul 25, 2019 | 0 Comments

purse theft

Some people think corpus delicti refers to a corpse, or a dead body. Not true. Corpus delicti is a Latin phrase that means body of the crime. In a theft case, stolen property is a key part of the corpus delicti. In an assault case, a broken nose might be part of the body of the crime. And in a homicide case, a dead body IS part of the corpus delicti.

To prove the corpus delicti, a prosecutor in a criminal case is required to show that there was:

  • injury, loss, or harm to someone; and
  • illegal activity caused it.

ILLEGAL ACTIVITY + INJURY, LOSS, OR HARM = BODY OF THE CRIME (CORPUS DELICTI)

Working in connection with the corpus delicti is the corpus delicti RULE. There are several parts to it. The corpus delicti rule in California states that:

  • the corpus delicti, or body of the crime, must be established in every case; AND
  • the corpus delicti cannot be based only upon the accused's confession or statements.

This means that a prosecutor cannot rely solely on a confession or other statement to prove that a crime occurred. The purpose of the corpus delicti rule is to make sure that a person is not admitting to a crime that never happened.

Practically speaking it only takes a slight bit of evidence for a prosecutor to prove the corpus delicti, or body of the crime.

For EXAMPLE:

A body was found in an alley wrapped in a blanket. The expert witnesses all said the cause of death was “undetermined.” The court noted that bodies are not normally left in alleys if a person dies of natural causes. That was enough to establish the corpus delicti of murder. People v. Huynh (2012) 212 Cal. App. 4th 285.

Please note that the corpus delicti rule also applies to statements by accomplices or co-conspirators.

How Does the Corpus Delicti Rule Apply in California?

Corpus delicti and the corpus delicti RULE are two slightly different things. Corpus delicti is a Latin phrase that means body of the crime. The corpus delicti RULE says the prosecutor must:

  • prove the corpus delicti in every criminal case, BUT
  • cannot use an accused person's confession or statements as the only evidence to do it.

The first part, the body of the crime or corpus delicti, is established under the rule when the prosecutor presents evidence that there was:

  • injury, loss, or harm to someone; and
  • criminal agency that caused the injury, loss, or harm.

NOTE: In a case where there are no out of court statements the part of the rule about confessions or statements simply doesn't come up.

Finally, in California there is an additional requirement under the corpus delicti rule. If a prosecutor uses statements made by the accused or accomplices, then the jury must be instructed that:

  • the accused may not be convicted based only on his or her out-of-court statements,
  • there must be other evidence that shows the crime was committed,
  • the other evidence may be slight and only needs to support a reasonable inference that a crime was committed. (See Cal Crim 359)

Here is an example of how the rule is applied.

A vehicle was found parked on the side of the road with a flat. Two people were nearby, both under the influence of alcohol. The court said this indicated that the flat occurred while someone was driving, and that one of the people had been driving while under the influence. Thus, the corpus delicti was established and the defendant's statement that he was driving the car is allowed. People v. McNorton (2001) 91 Cal. App. 4th Supp. 1.

Please note that the corpus delicti rule also applies to statements made by accomplices or codefendants.

What is the Purpose of the Corpus Delicti Rule?

The corpus delicti rule is meant to protect an accused from made-up testimony or false confessions.

One California court said the corpus delicti rule:

"Reflects the . . . fear that confessions may be the result of either improper police activity or the mental instability of the accused, and the recognition that juries are likely to accept confessions uncritically." Jones v. Superior Court (1979) 96 Cal.App.3d 390.

For EXAMPLE:

Police stop a homeless man riding a brand-new bicycle. They ask him where he got it. He shrugs and says, “I don't remember. I probably stole it.” Without other evidence to establish the corpus delicti, a prosecutor will not be able to prove the man committed a theft.

Are there any exceptions to the Corpus Delicti Rule in California?

Yes. The rule does not apply to a felony-based special circumstance in a first-degree murder case. See Penal Code 190.41.

In other words, if a person is found guilty of murder, then the special circumstance can be proved solely by his or her statements or admissions.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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