12/06/2010

"Corpus Delicti" Does Not Mean Dead Body

Note to stupid criminals: there is NO Better Business Bureau for consumer complaints in illegal transactions.  For example, if you attempt to retain the services of a prostitute, it is very bad idea to call the police and complain if the alleged contract for sexual favors has not been fulfilled. One misguided consumer was arrested for soliciting prostitution and giving false information to a police officer after he went to the police and complained that a hooker had failed to perform his requested sexual act. The link to article regarding the John's consumer complaint is here.

Then there is the story about the police complaint by a disappointed young trick who called the police to complain about his unrequited love affair in the trailer park with two unscrupulous femme fatales who took the money and ran after a very brief and most unsatisfying burlesque show. The report of his consumer complaint is here.

These poor unfortunate lads were summarily arrested and charged with soliciting acts of prostitution when the only evidence of the crime was the sexually starved sucker's own words.  In other words, without any other evidence besides the complaint from the disgruntled trick, there is not enough evidence to convict the moran of the crime.  This brings us to our next lesson about keeping thy mouth shut. There is a long standing rule in American jurisprudence that dates back well over 200 years entitled the "corpus delicti" rule. Corpus delicti, which means "the body of a crime," really means that the government cannot use your mere words to convict you of a crime without any other evidence to verify your confession.

For example, in California, there must be independent evidence of some criminal agency, loss, or harm before the prosecution can use your words to convict you. In other words, before the prosectution can convict these dodos of forming a contract with a prostitute, the prosecution must prove some independent evidence of that contract.

In our complaining John's breach of contract case, the prosecution would need to have the hookers come into court and admit to agreeing to unlawfully engage in illicit sex for money. Another way would be to introduce evidence of an independent witness to the contract who actually saw and overheard the trick making the offer and the prostitute accepting that offer. Or, thirdly, an undercover police officer would have to be present and offer sex for money to an unsuspecting dimwit who agrees to engage in an act of prostitution with that undercover officer.  (Watch out boys, if she's pretty and has all of her teeth, she's probably an undercover cop.)

As a practical matter, the corpus dilecti rule comes up most of the time in arson cases where there is no independent evidence of  accelerant use or criminal activity, and drunk driving cases wher there is a drunk near a car but no one saw him driving the car. 

I heard about a guy who burned down a million dollar warehouse and the only evidence the prosecution had was the fire bug's confession that he used a match to light the blaze.  The cops offered him some classes in exchange for his confession, but after he confessed he was charged with arson and the prosecution demanded prison.  (Another note to stupid criminals: the cops can lie to you in order to get your confession).  The confession was thrown out by a judge because the offer for leniency was considered coercion.  Even if the confession was brought in, there was still no evidence to back up the confession that the crime was arson because the fire marshal could find no evidence of criminal behavior such as gasoline spread about or evidence of a fire bomb.  Under the law, we call that no evidence of "criminal agency."  Stated another way, the defendant's confession would not hold up in court if the only evidence of the criminal conduct comes from his statement, "I lit the match that burned down the house."

Now, in the arson example of course, if the fire marshal comes to the conclusion that gasoline was poured all over the livingroom, there were no pets in the house, and the neighbors saw the fire bug moving furniture out of the house the day before the fire, then there is independent evidence that the fire was caused due to criminal activity, rather than through accident, because everybody knows that people don't keep gasoline in their living room.   In that case, the statement can be used as evidence.

The other way it comes up is in drunk driving cases.  Some drunken slob pulls over to vomit and is seen stumbling around his car.  The only evidence the police have that he was driving the car is his own slurred and vomit-scented exclamations. Here, the prosecutor lacks the independent evidence that criminal activity had taken place, because no one can testify to having actually seen the drunkard behind the wheel. Of course the common theme between the arsonist, the drunken driver, and these frustrated would-be Johns is that absent any independent evidence to corroborate their own confessions, the prosecution will most certainly be hard pressed to prove their case.

Whether you are a frustrated John or a drunk driver, you may think that by chatting with the police you can explain your way out of your predicament.  Sometimes, if that's really all they've got, the police will not be able to nail your stupid ass.  But don't count on it.  Silence is golden.

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