error code

Harmless Errors

One of the law blogs I enjoy reading, The Appeal, has a new “Explainer” series, where lawyers “help unpack” (AKA “explain”) some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. I never thought harmless error was particularly complicated. Appellate courts sometimes find that trial courts erred, but they don’t care, so they dismiss the errors as “harmless.” It’s sort of a “yeah, whatever” doctrine. Here is a refreshing take on harmless error from someone far, far less jaded than I am.

For those who only have time for one harmless factoid: for much of American history, ANY error required reversal. The doctrine allowing a constitutional error to be “harmless” did not arrive until 1967. That year, in Chapman v. California, the Supreme Court created a couple of new rules: (1) constitutional errors can be “harmless,” and (2) constitutional errors require reversal unless the government proves the error was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”


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