DUI and Corpus Delicti

November 19, 2019 Written by
DUI and Corpus Delicti DUI and Corpus Delicti Kitsap DUI Lawyer Ryan Witt

In Latin, Corpus Delicti means “body of the crime.” It is a procedural safeguard that we have in our legal system that basically means that a person may not be convicted of a crime unless it is first proven that a crime has actually occurred. In other words, the State needs to demonstrate that something bad happened as a result of a violation of the law, and that the defendant was the one who violated it. There are two elements of Corpus Delicti in every offense: (1) a wrong has occurred, and (2) the wrong is the result of a specific person’s criminal act.

Historical Context

“Body of the crime,” as one can imagine, has to do with a murder charge. The idea is that, without a body, there is no proof that a crime has been committed. People can suspect that a murder was committed, but without a body, it is difficult to prove element 1 above – that a wrong has occurred. How does the State prove that the missing person is not just on an unannounced vacation to the Bahamas?

What About a Confession?

The Corpus rule receives the most discussion and debate when a person confesses to a crime that has been committed. A person’s confession as to the commission of a crime is not sufficient evidence to convict a person of a crime unless there is independent evidence that the crime being investigated was committed by the confessing individual.

The Corpus Delicti Rule is a Safeguard

The rule is meant to prevent the prosecution of mentally unstable people who admit to crimes for attention or notoriety. And it is also in place to reduce the use of interrogation tactics that tend to strong-arm confessions.

Do you remember the convicted pedophile who confessed to the 1996 murder of child JonBenet Ramsey? The Boulder Police Department did not find his DNA matched and it appears the confession was not perceived as trustworthy. This does not mean other law enforcement agencies would do the same thing or put so much emphasis on DNA. It is possible that a Prosecutor would try to charge the person based solely on the confession. While it seems far-fetched that people confess to crimes they did not commit, it does happen. The Corpus Delicti rule is one safeguard in protecting the veracity of the criminal justice process and keeping truly innocent (and perhaps mentally ill) people from being convicted for a crime they did not commit while allowing the actual perpetrator to go free.

What Does This Mean For A DUI Charge?

Assume two or more people are driving in a car. For one reason or another, the driver accidentally drives into a ditch. A passer-by sees the accident, and calls 911. At the same time, all of the occupants get out of the car and walk up to the road. When the police arrive, no one is left in the car. The policeman asks, “who was driving the car?” – to which Joe Suspect raises his hand and says he was the driver. Mr. Suspect is arrested. Throughout the investigation it is determined that he was under the influence of alcohol. Mr. Suspect is then prosecuted for DUI.

So How Does The Corpus Rule Work?

Continuing on with the same example from above, Ms. Defense Attorney realizes that Mr. Suspect is being prosecuted based solely on his confession. There is no independent evidence that Mr. Suspect was the driver of the car. There were multiple people in the car, and it could have been any one of them. Ms. Defense Attorney files a Corpus Motion and the case is dismissed.

What Officers Can, But Often Forget, To Do

In more cases than not, law enforcement officers stop investigating who the driver was once they obtain a confession. What officers can, but neglect to do, is: (1) check who is the registered owner of the car, (2) check who’s pockets the keys are in, (3) check for seat belt marks on people’s shoulders (this can indicate who was the passenger versus who was the driver), (4) check the seat position of the driver (is the person confessing very tall, yet the driver’s seat is adjusted for a short person?) and (5) ask other individuals who were witness to the accident to corroborate the events.

These small efforts can shut down a Corpus defense, but law enforcement typically does not make this final investigative effort. They believe once there is a confession, the case is closed. That is incorrect and law enforcement’s lack of diligence can be used to great advantage by a suspect accused of DUI.

This is a complicated area and you will need an experienced DUI attorney to help you. If you are accused of DUI or any other criminal offense, do not hesitate to give our office a call. We have offices in Gig Harbor, Bremerton and Poulsbo for your convenience. If you found this blog interesting, CLICK HERE to read more on similar topics.