What is Harmless Error

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on February 25, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When your case is before a court of law, you'll hear many words tossed around.

Some words are more important than others. Some could mean that your case actually has potential to be overturned.

Other words just refer to a legal technicality.

What does "harmless error" mean?

Not every case goes perfectly and not every decision is the result of perfect administration of the law. In order to appeal a case, the attorneys at trial must raise an objection to something that happened at the trial. This objection could be to something that was admitted into evidence, testimony offered on the witness stand, or questioning by the adverse attorney.

Harmless error happens when the ruling during a trial is erroneous, but that error would not otherwise prejudice the case. As a result, harmless error isn't a reason for the judgment to be overthrown.

The losing party to a case usually appeals the lower court decision, citing an error of law and claiming that it led to an incorrect verdict or outcome.

At that point, it's in the appellate court's hands to determine whether the error was serious enough to warrant overturning the case.

There's really no hard and fast rule for what harmless error is. Courts have different tests they apply. In some circumstances, the courts look at whether the error influenced the verdict. Depending on the effect the error had on the verdict, the error can be seen as harmless or prejudicial.

A second test is to look at the evidence of guilt on the trial record. If there is overwhelming evidence of guilt, then the error is considered harmless.

In a third test, courts balance both the impact of the error on the verdict and the evidence of guilt.

Going back to the main point, a verdict can be overturned, but not for harmless error.

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