Criminal evidence is any physical or verbal evidence presented to prove a crime. This evidence can take various forms and may also be introduced by the defendant to demonstrate that they are not guilty.

It is illegal to hide any of this evidence, an action known as spoliation of evidence, from the other side or the authorities. In any criminal trial, the burden is on the prosecution to establish that the defendant committed the crime.

Why is Evidence Important?

In a civil or criminal trial, either side may present evidence to demonstrate or disprove that a crime occurred. Evidence is essential for the prosecution in a criminal proceeding to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and in a civil case for the plaintiff to demonstrate that it is entitled to damages.

Whether it is a civil or a criminal proceeding, evidence may be presented that is physical or verbal, such as a confession by the defendant, testimony by a witness, DNA, drug paraphernalia, or photographs.

What is Spoliation Of Evidence?

The outcome of a case hinges on the strength of the evidence presented, and the evidentiary rules are pretty strict about the responsibilities of both parties to preserve evidence. Any intentional, reckless, or negligent hiding of evidence by either party to the proceeding is prohibited.

This is known as spoliation of evidence (also tampering with evidence) and can result in severe legal consequences. While spoliation of evidence may be applied in a civil case, it is often at issue in criminal cases.

What is Considered Hiding of Evidence?

“Hiding” of evidence is rather broad. It can include any activity that hides, withholds, alters, or destroys evidence relevant to the case. Essentially, any action by the part that makes the evidence inaccessible for the legal proceeding may be considered destruction of evidence.

In some jurisdictions, witness tampering (i.e., threatening a witness, physically stopping them from testifying, or convincing them to alter their testimony) can be considered destruction of evidence.

Are There Consequences for Spoliation of Evidence?

There are consequences for spoliation of evidence, though what that is will depend on your jurisdiction. For instance, a defendant’s relative deliberately destroys the text messages exchanged with the defendant about a robbery the defendant committed. If the relative’s guilt is established after a legal proceeding, the relative may be subject to fines or incarceration.

In other jurisdictions, the court may allow a negative inference based on evidence’s spoliation, which means that the attempt to spoil the evidence can be a sign of guilt.

In a civil case involving a defective airbag that resulted in the driver’s death, the car manufacturer erased all customer complaints from its onsite computers and backup systems. The court in this jurisdiction may permit the jury to infer that the company’s action establishes its knowledge that its airbags were defective. This inference would be a significant blow to the defendant’s case.

Finally, some jurisdictions permit a separate tort action for spoliation of guilt. The penalty here may be punitive, ordered to punish the defendant, or remedial. For these kinds of torts, the evidence has to be relevant (i.e., there has to be resulting damage because of the spoliation of the evidence) to the complainant’s case, and the offending party’s actions must have been intentional or grossly negligent.

What Are Some Forms of Criminal Evidence?

Criminal evidence may come in two different formats, verbal or physical. Examples of verbal evidence may include:

  • Confessions made by the defendant
  • Testimony offered by witnesses and expert witnesses
  • Text of documents such as a search warrant or other files
  • Spoken evidence obtained through a wiretap or other similar technology

Physical evidence is any tangible evidence and is usually presented as an exhibit. Examples can include:

  • Weapons or other instruments used to commit a crime
  • Illegal contraband such as drugs, drug money, and drug paraphernalia
  • DNA, blood, or bodily samples
  • Photographs or video footage
  • Demonstrative evidence
  • Footprints or other types of tracks
  • Scientific and forensic evidence

All criminal evidence may be further categorized into either direct or circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence provides the prosecution with true information “beyond a reasonable doubt” (for instance, a videotape depicting the defendant injuring the victim). Circumstantial evidence does not prove a theory but rather only offers proof supporting the hypothesis (for example, a knife that fits the description of witness testimony).

What is DNA Testing, and How is it Used in Criminal Prosecutions?

Scientists often use DNA, also called deoxyribonucleic acid, as important evidence by prosecutors in criminal law trials. DNA is a set of molecules found in the human body. Like a fingerprint, each person in the world has a different and unique DNA profile. Because each individual’s DNA profile is different, criminal prosecutors can use DNA matches to help demonstrate to a jury that the suspect facing criminal charges is most likely the person guilty of committing the crime.

DNA can unknowingly be left behind by a suspect at a crime scene and later found, tested, and analyzed by careful investigators. DNA is found in blood, hair, saliva, teeth, fingernails, skin cells, and bodily fluids, including semen. Crime scenes where DNA is typically found are typically places where violent crimes occurred, including rape, murder, kidnapping, and other incidents involving physical confrontations.

If a suspect’s DNA is found at a crime scene, scientists and law enforcement officials can access a national DNA database filled with DNA samples taken from criminal offenders. The DNA database, called the Combined DNA Index System, compares a suspect’s DNA to the DNA of hundreds of thousands of convicted criminals.

This method is sometimes called DNA profiling. Suppose law enforcement officials discover a DNA match. In that case, the prosecution will use this information as evidence to try to prove that the suspect on trial is the individual who committed the criminal act.

What Evidence Is Admissible in Court?

For evidence to be admissible in court, the evidence must be logically relevant, material, and competent. For evidence to be relevant, it must have a reasonable tendency to help prove or disprove a fact. The evidence does not have to make a fact certain but rather make a fact of consequence more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

Even if the evidence is relevant, the evidence must be legally relevant, meaning that the probative value of the evidence must not be substantially outweighed by the dangers of unfair prejudice, confusion of jury, waste of time, and misleading of the jury.

What Evidence Is Not Admissible in Court?

Although most evidence is authorized for use at trial, the rules, such as the hearsay evidence rule, prevent certain kinds of evidence from being admissible. These rules are even stricter in criminal cases because the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants certain rights. However, most of these rules have special exceptions and are subject to change from state to state, so review with an attorney before heading to court.

The following types of evidence are not permitted against criminal defendants:

  • Out of Court Testimony: The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront their accusers.
  • Character Evidence: Prosecutors cannot use evidence of a defendant’s personality to prove that the defendant committed the crime unless the defendant raises the issue first.
  • Plea Bargaining: Statements made during plea bargains cannot be used against the defendant at trial.
  • Self-Incrimination: Defendants have the right not to take the stand during a trial because the prosecutor’s cross-examination could lead the defendant to incriminate him or herself.

Do I Need a Criminal Lawyer?

The presentation of evidence in a criminal case can have powerful effects on the verdict. For example, if the police illegally obtained evidence, it cannot be used in court.

Thus, working with a criminal lawyer may be necessary if you are facing criminal charges. An attorney can help you review the evidence to obtain your full rights under the law.