A few questions about "Corpus delicti"

Based on what you think ought to happen?

Based on corpus delicti. You can’t be convicted of a non-existent crime. Yes, the system can go wrong, but it is already incredibly improbable that the state charges someone with a crime without evidence and then a judge allows a defendant to plead guilty in the first place, much less the judge accepting that plea. You expect that would not be overturned on appeal?

I think the concept does apply at earlier stages although it might not necessarily be referred to as “corpus delicti”. For example, police need probable cause to arrest someone. One definition of “probable cause” is " a basis for believing that a crime may have been committed". Now , that reasonable basis may be that someone reported to the police that he was robbed at a specific time and place , but the police don’t arrest someone who comes in and confesses to a crime without at least some indication that a crime was committed.


A person’s confession is evidence. There’s a special rule that says an out of court confession can’t be the only evidence that a crime even occurred. It varies by jurisdiction exactly how that rule plays out, but it does not apply to arrests or, in most jurisdictions, to anything pretrial.

Also, in practice, this doesn’t tend to play out by a person going up to an officer and saying “I’m a murderer, arrest me.” And then getting arrested and prosecuted.

It probably plays out most often in the accomplice scenario. But sticking to confessions, an example based in reality would be a serial killer who confessed to an additional killing, and was specific as to place and fairly specific as to timing and description of the victim. The police would probably have to match the description up to a missing person, plus come up with something more, or recover a body, for the killer to be convicted at trial. But he could be charged right away, at least under federal law, and I think in most jurisdictions.

Right. That’s why I wrote:

That’s what I was referring to, a guilty plea without a confession.

A guilty plea is an admission in court to the charged crime, as alleged in the charging instrument. No further evidence is required. If it’s a no contest or Alford plea, then the prosecution needs to give a factual basis, but the defendant isn’t going to object, or there’d be no plea deal.

Let’s use assault/battery as the example (since it’s a crime that, like most violent crimes, would be pretty much impossible to get evidence for unless you can find out who the victim is.)

Suppose Kevin calls the FBI: “Hey, my coworker John Doe says he once stabbed someone many years ago” (no further details, since Kevin knows nothing further. Let’s assume that stabbing has no statute of limitations.)

The FBI then goes knocking on John Doe’s door with a warrant and he is brought to arraignment. The charging instrument says “assault and battery.” John pleads guilty (whether that means checking a box on a form, or signing his name on some document, etc.) - however, John himself provides no details on the crime either.

In such a case, there would be two pieces of evidence at play - Kevin’s informant tip, and John’s own guilty plea. But there would still be no info on even who the victim is, when it happened (aside from “it was a long time ago,”) or where it happened. With such scant evidence, even the in-court confession (guilty plea) coupled with the informant’s tip wouldn’t make such a conviction “count,” right? There still has to be some version of corpus delicti that would come into play here.

There’s just a lot about that scenario that doesn’t work, without even getting to CD. You can’t have a charging instrument that just says “assault and battery.” You can’t plead guilty to it by checking a box on a form. There’s a colloquy, and the judge has to accept the plea as knowing and voluntary. You might not be able to plead at the arraignment. Your lawyer will advise against it and explain why. If you choose to go without a lawyer, there’s another colloquy for a knowing and intelligent waiver.

If, after all that is done, you still want to plead guilty and admit in court that you did what you are charged with and you are waiving your right to contest it, and the charging instrument itself is sufficient, (discussed above, plus I left out jurisdiction) then you probably won’t be able to turn around and challenge it on appeal, because you didn’t challenge it below.

None of that is actually about application of CD rule, because it would not apply to your in court admission to having committed the crime as charged.

I think I’ve read here or somewhere else, that if you go into a police station and report a theft of your drugs, that you’ll be charged with possession. True or false?

I don’t know if you’d be charged, but you wouldn’t be convicted. To prove possession of a controlled substance, most courts require a lab test establishing that it really was a controlled substance. There’s a lot of fake stuff out there.

Also, more relevant to this thread, it would violate the corpus delicti rule.

I don’t know. It would probably depend on a lot of factors. Reporting the theft of a small “user quantity,” my wild guess is that the police would just tell you, “get out of here.” A large quantity, I imagine they might arrest you.

Do you have a cite for this? In practical terms, a test is usually required, because otherwise you just have an officer saying what drug it looked like. But it seems like a defendant’s admission that it was X controlled substance would be enough evidence that it was that – especially so if the person admitted using the drugs, if they were a regular user.

Only if they did no further investigation, or the investigation turned up no other evidence. You could certainly get a warrant to search the place the drugs were stolen from. Some residue, or a drug dog alerting would corroborate the existence of the drugs. Maybe some neighbors have also witnessed transactions?

Well, it seems that the law has changed since I was practicing criminal defense. Nonetheless, courts do still require a higher level of proof then what we have in this hypothetical. See the last sentence from this portion of a 2006 case.

¶ 12 Generally, a chemical analysis is not vital to uphold a conviction for possession of a controlled substance. See State v. Hernandez, 85 Wash.App. 672, 675, 935 P.2d 623 (1997) (circumstantial evidence and lay testimony may be sufficient to establish the identity of a drug in a criminal case) (citing In re Reismiller, 101 Wash.2d 291, 294, 678 P.2d 323 (1984) and State v. Eddie A., 40 Wash.App. 717, 720, 700 P.2d 751 (1985)). In Hernandez, this *797 court found sufficient evidence in several delivery or possession with intent to deliver cases in which officers provided detailed testimony about such things as: (1) their expertise in identifying drugs and drug-sale behaviors; (2) standard drug prices; (3) their observations of behavior consistent with **896 drug sales; (4) the drug-using behavior of the persons contacting defendants; (5) the known drug areas in which the defendants were observed; (6) discovery of materials on the defendants consistent with those they saw defendants deliver; and (7) discovery of money in amounts consistent with drug sales. Hernandez, 85 Wash.App. at 678–82, 935 P.2d 623. The State also presented laboratory tests demonstrating that the materials actually found on some of the defendants were, in fact, controlled substances. Hernandez, 85 Wash.App. at 679–81, 935 P.2d 623.

¶ 13 In United States v. Dominguez, 992 F.2d 678, 681 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 891, 114 S.Ct. 250, 126 L.Ed.2d 203 (1993), the court stated that “as long as the available circumstantial evidence establishes its identity [as a controlled substance] beyond a reasonable doubt [,] … [c]ircumstantial evidence establishing identification may include … lay-experience based on familiarity through prior use, trading, or law enforcement.” (Citations omitted). The Dominguez court, however, emphasized that when the record lacked indicia as to what factors a Drug Enforcement Administration agent considered in determining the identification of a substance, the prosecution failed to establish the identity of that substance. Dominguez, 992 F.2d at 681–82.

¶ 14 In State v. Roche, 114 Wash.App. 424, 59 P.3d 682 (2002), Division One of this court reversed a conviction for possession of a controlled substance, even with a police officer’s testimony and a positive field test for methamphetamine. Roche, 114 Wash.App. at 431, 440, 59 P.3d 682. Roche appealed his conviction after it was discovered that the State crime lab chemist who tested Roche’s substance tampered with evidence to hide his own heroin addiction. Roche, 114 Wash.App. at 428, 59 P.3d 682. The officer’s testimony and a positive field test were inadequate for the State to try or sentence the defendant; *798 therefore, the court reversed the conviction. Roche, 114 Wash.App. at 440, 59 P.3d 682.

¶ 15 On the other hand, independent evidence provided to the trial court can be sufficient to find that a substance is cocaine beyond a reasonable doubt, even without reliable laboratory reports. See, e.g., In re Pers. Restraint of Delmarter, 124 Wash.App. 154, 163–64, 101 P.3d 111 (2004). For example, in Delmarter, the court upheld Delmarter’s conviction for possession of cocaine even after it was discovered that the same crime lab chemist in the Roche case tested Delmarter’s evidence. Delmarter, 124 Wash.App. at 157, 101 P.3d 111. In Delmarter, however, not only did a field test support Delmarter’s conviction, but Delmarter admitted that he had in fact possessed cocaine. Delmarter, 124 Wash.App. at 163–64, 101 P.3d 111. Explicitly distinguishing the facts in Roche, the Delmarter court weighed the additional evidence of the confession in affirming the conviction. Delmarter, 124 Wash.App. at 163, 101 P.3d 111 (“Roche did not admit that the substances found in his home were methamphetamines, despite a positive field test”). Even without laboratory results, an independent field test and a confession are sufficient to support a conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

State v. Colquitt, 133 Wn. App. 789, 796–98, 137 P.3d 892, 895–96 (2006)

Well, it says an independent field test plus a confession is enough. It doesn’t say whether a confession alone, or confession plus something else could also be enough.

Certainly an in-court judicial admission would be enough.

According to this law review article, 47 AMULR 557 (1998), “Traditionally, the identity of a controlled substance has been proved by several methods, including chemical analysis, field tests, testimony of drug users and circumstantial evidence, as well as visual identification of marijuana.” Specifics can of course vary by jurisdiction.

I think this is true. If you admit an element of the offense at trial, the state doesn’t have to prove it with other evidence. Parties stipulate all the time to all kinds of facts.

Remember this hypothetical was “walking into a police station and claiming someone stole your drugs.” There would be no chemical analysis, no field test, not visual identification. I will stick to my original opinion: if charged, (and if you were contesting the charge at trial) there would not be sufficient evidence to convict you for possession of a controlled substance.

To which, I said this:

But yes, if all you had was the person’s statement to police, it probably would not be enough. That’s very far from what would typically happen though. And my posts about how it could be proved were all in response to the claim that a lab test is required, not in response to the corpus delicti part.

I agree. And I acknowledge you were more correct than I was. I recall lab testing being more of a bright line requirement in the old days, but maybe it was always a bit fuzzy.

It occurs to me now, more than a month later, that if you didn’t admit the offense at trial, you could perhaps be charged with making a false report. A loose-loose situation. And that would be an offense for which evidence exists.

A brief summary: No, the term is rarely used because it is a rare case where it may be applicable. As others have noted, corpus delicti is is the body of evidence that proves that a crime was committed, which is obviously necessary for any criminal conviction.

Some states, a minority of them (West Virginia is one, I believe California is another), hold that a defendant’s extrajudicial statement alone is not enough to establish a corpus delicti, that some other evidence must be present, even if that other evidence is not enough to prove the crime itself.

So, to take a hypo, if a guy walks into a police station and says he murdered a guy a few years back, unless the police can get more information to tie that guy to a particular murder, it is not enough (in these minority of states) to permit a criminal conviction.

As others have said, this rule applies only to extrajudicial statements. If a person is attempting to plead guilty, most Rules of Criminal Procedure provides safeguards, one of which is that the judge must be satisfied that a crime took place and that the defendant is guilty of it. If the defendant admits under oath that he committed murder, and the judge is satisfied of his guilt, the judge may accept the plea, but as a practical matter, no judge would accept a factual basis of “I murdered some guy a few years ago” with the prosecutor shrugging his shoulders and saying he’s not sure what the defendant is talking about. These rules of criminal procedure would likely act as a de facto “corpus delicti” rule in almost every case in every jurisdiction outside a law school hypothetical.

However, most of the time, the term is commonly misunderstood by some who believe it means you cannot have a murder conviction without a corpse–which is false, and it is also used by sovereign citizens who claim that something cannot be a crime without a complaining witness, typically when the sov cit is charged with driving on a revoked license or driving without registration–which is absolutely false.