Corpus Delicti

The corpus delicti doctrine becomes an important legal defenses under Florida law when the main evidence in the case is a confession by the defendant.

If the outcome of your criminal case turns on whether a confession is admitted at trial, it is important to talk with your criminal defense attorney about how the corpus delicti doctrine might apply in your case.

Florida law provides that before an extrajudicial confession can be admitted into evidence at trial, the corpus delicti rule requires the state to come forward with “substantial evidence” of the following:

  1. a crime of the type contemplated by the charges has occurred; and
  2. some person is criminally responsible for the act.

If this rule is satisfied, an extrajudicial confession may be admissible in a criminal trial. Of course, just because the corpus delicti rule is not an issue does not make a confession automatically admissible because other evidentiary and substantive requirements must also be satisfied.

For example, the state must show that the officer did not interrogate a suspect in custody without advising the suspect of the Miranda warning.

Operation of the Corpus Delicti Doctrine

The Florida Supreme Court, in State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823 (Fla. 1976), explained how the corpus delicti rule operates:

It is a fundamental principle of law that no person be adjudged guilty of a crime until the state has shown that a crime has been committed. The state therefore must show that a harm has been suffered of the type contemplated by the charges … and that such harm was incurred due to the criminal agency of another.

This usually requires the identity of the victim of the crime. A person’s confession to a crime is not sufficient evidence of a criminal act where no independent direct or circumstantial evidence exists to substantiate the occurrence of a crime….

This rule obviously does not require the state to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before his or her confession may be admitted. Indeed, as this Court has stated before, it is preferable that the occurrence of a crime be established before any evidence is admitted to show the identity of the guilty party, even though it is often difficult to segregate the two.

The prosecutor for the State of Florida has a burden to bring forth substantial evidence tending to show the commission of the charged crime.

This standard does not require the proof to be uncontradicted or overwhelming, but it must at least show the existence of each element of the crime…. Id. at 825 (footnotes omitted).

The State may prove the corpus delicti with either direct or circumstantial evidence. Meyers v. State, 704 So.2d 1368, 1369 (Fla. 1997); see Allen, 335 So.2d at 826; Acoff v. State, 180 So. 3d 185, 187-88 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015), reh’g denied (Jan. 5, 2016), review dismissed, SC16-317, 2016 WL 688295 (Fla. 2016).

Read more about the special rules that apply to criminal cases with circumstantial evidence in Florida.

Corpus Delicti in DUI-Related Cases

The corpus delicti rule can become an issue in DUI-related issues. The term “corpus delicti” means “the body of the crime.” Lafave and Scott, Handbook on Criminal Law, 4 at 16-17 (1972).

Corpus delicti is a showing that a crime was committed or the existence of a specific injury or loss. Wigmore on Evidence 20-71 at 20-782 (1904).

At trial, the prosecutor has the burden to bring forth “substantial evidence” tending to show the commission of the charged crime. State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823 (Fla. 1976).

The evidence presented by the prosecution to show the commission of the charged crime must at least show the existence of each element of the crime. State v. Allen, 335 So.2d at 825.

In the context of driving under the influence (DUI) cases, three elements exist under Florida Statute 316.193 including:

  • driving or in actual physical control of an automobile;
  • being under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance;
  • having normal faculties impaired or a blood or breath alcohol level of .08 or more.

The corpus delicti in a DUI case involves proof of each of the three elements. If the prosecution cannot prove, through independent evidence, the criminal circumstance required by the DUI statute, then the defense can move to exclude any admissions.

For instance, in many DUI cases, the officer conducting the DUI investigation did not observe the Defendant under the influence of alcohol at the time of the alleged driving. In many of these cases, no other witness can establish this element of the crime charged because no one saw who was driving.

In these cases, the elements of the crime with which a defendant has been charged must be established by independent evidence. M.L.K. v. State, 454 So.2d 753 (1984).

If no other corroborating evidence supports the corpus delicti of Driving Under the Influence, then the confession is not admissible. State v. Allen, 335 So.2d 823, 825 (Fla. 1976). Additionally, the quantum of proof must be independent of any confession or admission. Id. at 825.

In State v. Walton, 42 So. 3d 902, 906-07 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010), the Court explained that in a DUI case, the defendant’s identity as the driver may become a necessary part of the corpus delicti where, absent proof that the defendant was the driver, the evidence does not establish a crime occurred.

Because many DUI cases involve an investigation without any eye-witness to the offense, the corpus delicti rule is one of the most important defenses in a DUI case without a wheel witness, even if the defendant confesses to driving.

Special Procedures for Corpus Delicti in Sexual Abuse Cases

The Florida legislature has created special procedures for dealing with corpus delicti issues in sexual abuse cases. Florida Statute Section 92.565 for the admissibility of confession in sexual abuse cases.

The provision applies to cases involving “sexual abuse” which is defined as an “act of a sexual nature or sexual act that may be prosecuted under any law of this state.” Specifically designated offenses include:

  • any criminal action in which the defendant is charged with a crime against a victim under s. 794.011, 794.05, 800.04, 826.04 and 827.03;
  • any criminal action involving sexual abuse under s. 827.04, 827.071, 847.0135(5); or
  • any other crime involving sexual abuse of another, or with any attempt, solicitation, or conspiracy to commit any of these crimes.

For criminal charges involving sexual abuse, the defendant’s memorialized confession or admission is admissible during trial without the state having to prove a corpus delicti of the crime if the court finds in a hearing conducted outside the presence of the jury that the state is unable to show the existence of each element of the crime, and having so found, further finds that the defendant’s confession or admission is trustworthy.

Factors that may be relevant in determining whether the state is unable to show the existence of each element of the crime include, but are not limited to, the fact that, at the time the crime was committed, the victim was:

  • mentally defective, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless as those terms are defined in s. 794.011;
  • physically incapacitated due to age, infirmity, or any other cause; or
  • less than 12 years of age.

Before the court admits the defendant’s confession or admission, the state must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that there is sufficient corroborating evidence that tends to establish the trustworthiness of the statement by the defendant.

Hearsay evidence is admissible during the presentation of evidence at the hearing. In making its determination, the court may consider all relevant corroborating evidence, including the defendant’s statements. The court shall make specific findings of fact, on the record, for the basis of its ruling.

Additional Resources

The Anatomy of Florida’s Corpus Delicti Doctrine –  Visit The Florida Bar Journal to find an article written by Tom Barber in October 2000, Volume LXXIV, No. 9, explaining the corpus delicti doctrine in the State of Florida. The article argues that, in practice, corpus delicti can be one of the most important, but frequently misunderstood topics in criminal law.

This article was last updated on Friday, July 22, 2022.