Harmless Error

Harmless Error in the United States

A mistake made during a criminal trial that is not serious enough to affect the outcome. Harmless error is a defect in proceeding that is regarded as formal or academic in character. The error, however, is regarded as nonprejudicial to the rights of the defendant. Error that is so limited is not a ground for vacating or modifying a judgment. Harmless error is the opposite of reversible error, which does require the reversal or vacating of a conviction. The harmless error concept is an analytic device used by appellate courts as they review actions of lower courts. The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard applies in making such review. That is, the reviewing court must conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the mistake was harmless.

See Also

Appeal (Judicial Effects and Policies) Reversal (Judicial Effects and Policies) Reversible Error (Judicial Effects and Policies).

Analysis and Relevance

The harmless error doctrine is based on the premise that criminal trials are designed to adjudicate guilt. There will be occasions when that function is fulfilled even though a technical mistake was made. The harmless error approach focuses on the underlying fairness of the trial rather than the presence of minimal or immaterial error. As a rule, if an error occurs in a criminal trial, a conviction will be set aside. The harmless error analysis does not take place when a fundamental search or self-incrimination issue exists. In those situations where it applies, however, it is possible to preserve a conviction even in the presence of error. A helpful illustration can be found in the case of Rose v. Clark (478 U.S. 570: 1986). Clark was charged with both first- and second-degree murder. Under Tennessee law, the state had to prove malice but not premeditation to obtain a conviction for second-degree murder. The judge instructed the jury that malice was presumed in all murders in the absence of evidence to the contrary. Clark appealed his conviction arguing that the instruction erroneously shifted burden of proof to him on the malice question. Clark eventually prevailed with this argument. At the same time, the Supreme Court ruled that a jury instruction that so alters the burden of proof basically interferes with a fair trial and could never be considered harmless. Thus, this kind of case is subject to harmless error analysis. Accordingly, if the reviewing court was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the erroneous instruction was harmless with re-spect to the outcome, the conviction could be upheld.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Harmless Error from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Harmless Error in the United States

Harmless Error

United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled 647 HARMLESS ERRORNot all denials of a defendant’s federal constitutional rights compel reversal of a conviction. The Supreme Court announced in Chapman v. California (1967) as a matter of federal constitutional law that, in criminal proceedings, if the beneficiary of the error can prove beyond a
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Harmless Error

United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled 521 HARMLESS ERROR When an appellate court finds that a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights were violated at trial, it must then decide whether to reverse the defendant’s conviction. In a case where the appellate court has little reason to believe that the constitutional error
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Meaning of Harmless Error

In plain or simple terms, Harmless Error means: An error committed by a lower court during a trial, but determined by an appellate court not to be prejudicial to the rights of the party affected, and therefore furnishing no basis for reversal of the lower court’s judgment.

Harmless Error: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Harmless Error. This part provides references, in relation to Harmless Error, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Harmless Error by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Harmless Error and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Harmless Error or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Harmless Error and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Harmless Error. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Harmless Error should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Harmless Error when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

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