THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Supreme Court
The State of South
Elmer Osborne, Respondent.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF
Appeal From Pickens County
Larry R. Patterson, Judge
Opinion No. 24942
Heard November 6, 1997 - Filed May 3,1999
Patrick M. Teague, Associate General Counsel, and
Frank L. Valenta, Jr., General Counsel, both of the
South Carolina Department of Public Safety, of
Columbia, for petitioner.
Dallas D. Ball, of Pickens, for respondent.
Charles M. Condon, Attorney General, John W.
McIntosh, Deputy Attorney General, Salley W.
Elliott, Assistant Deputy Attorney General, and
Harold M. Coombs, Jr., Senior Assistant Attorney
General, of Columbia, for petitioner amicus curiae.
WALLER, A.J.: Respondent- Elmer Osborne was convicted in
magistrate's court of driving under the influence ("DUI") in violation of S.C.
Code Ann. § 56-5-2930 (1976). The circuit court reversed, finding the Stat1
failed to prove the corpus delicti. The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit
court's ruling. State v. Osborne, 321 S.C. 196, 467 S.E.2d 454 (Ct. App.
1996). We granted the State's petition for certiorari, and now reverse.
At 11:17 p.m. on November 24, 1991, Trooper J.M. Bagwell arrived at
the scene of a one-car accident. The car had gone off the road and hit a
speed limit sign. It was abandoned. The car hood was warm to the touch.
Bagwell went back to patrolling the area.
At 1:50 a.m., November 25, 1991, Deputy J.S. Duncan met Respondent
at a Hot Spot convenience store. Duncan testified Respondent told him he
called the police to report his car stolen. In Duncan's opinion, Respondent
was very intoxicated. He told Respondent the penalty for filing a false report
and advised him of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona.2 Respondent then
told Duncan he wrecked his car. The two then returned to the accident
scene, where they met Trooper Bagwell (who was called back to the scene).
At first, Respondent told Bagwell the car was stolen; he then admitted he
wrecked the car after Deputy Duncan reminded him of what he had said at
the Hot Spot. Duncan asked Respondent where the car keys were because
the vehicle was locked. Respondent said they were in his pocket and gave
them to Duncan.
Bagwell asked Respondent whether he drank anything after the wreck;
Respondent stated he had not. He then gave Respondent a field sobriety test
which in his opinion Respondent failed. He arrested Respondent at 2:28 a.m.
on November 25, 1991. Following his arrest, Respondent was given a
breathalyser test which registered .14%.
Office of the Attorney General has filed an amicus curiae brief essentially
supporting Petitioner's argument. References in this opinion to "the State"
refer to Petitioner.
2 384 U.S.- 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966).
I. Did Respondent's statements to police constitute a confession?
II. Did the State's evidence establish the corpus delicti?
It is well-settled law that a conviction cannot be had on the extra
judicial confessions of a defendant unless they are corroborated by proof
656 (1996).5 See also State v. Brown, 103 S.C. 437, 442, 88 S.E. 21, 22
(1916) ("Before a defendant can be required to go into his defense, it is
necessary that there shall be some proof of. the corpus delicti"). Before the
Court of Appeals, the State argued Respondent's statements did not amount
to a confession and thus this rule was inapplicable. The State further argued
that even if the corroboration rule applied, there was sufficient evidence
aliunde Respondent's statements to establish the corpus delicti. The Court
of Appeals rejected both arguments.
1. Respondent's Statements
The State argues the Court of Appeals erred in finding Respondent's
statements to police amounted to a confession. We agree.
The legal definition of "confession" is "restricted to acknowledgment of
guilt and does not apply to mere statement[s] of fact from which guilt may
be inferred." State v. Cunningham, 275 S.C. 189, 192, 268 S.E.2d 289, 291
(1980) (quoting State v. Miller, 211 S.C. 306, 45 S.E.2d 23 (1947)). See also
29A Am. Jur. 2d Evidence § 709 (1994) (although every confession is an
admission, not every admission is a confession). Respondent told police (1)
his car was stolen, (2) he wrecked his car (retracting the stolen car claim),
4 "The body of a crime." Black's Law Dictionary 344 (6th ed. 1990). See
also State v. Teal, 225 S.C. 472, 474, 82 S.E.2d 787, 788 (1954) ("[G]enerally
speaking, the term "corpus delicti" means, when applied to any particular
offense, that the specific crime has actually been committed").
5 This rule of law will be referred to in this opinion as the "corroboration
and (3) he did not have anything to drink after the wreck.6 Section 56-5
2930 defines the crime of DUL "It is unlawful for . . . any person who is
under the influence of intoxicating liquors . . . or any other substance of like
character . . . to drive any vehicle within this State." See also State v.
Sheppard, 248 S.C. 464, 465, 150 S.E.2d 916, 917 (1966) ("The act of
operating a motor vehicle with impaired faculties is the gravamen of the
offense [of DUI]").
We find Respondent's statements do not constitute an acknowledgment
of guilt of DUI. They do not even acknowledge Respondent ever drank at all,
much less that he was under the influence of alcohol. Rather, these
statements are more in the nature of admissions. See, e.g., State v. Morgan,
282 S.C. 409, 410-11, 319 S.E.2d 335, 336 (1984) (in reviewing DUI
conviction, statements to police that defendant had been using alcohol and
drugs, and was driver of car before it wrecked, did not amount to a
confession of guilt; court specifically noted that defendant "did not say that
he was under, the influence")7; Cunningham, 275 S.C. at 189, 268 S.E.2d at
before the accident, and it relied on this additional alleged statement in
finding a confession. Osborne, 321 S.C. at 199, 467 S.E.2d at 456. There is
no evidence in the magistrate's return that Respondent made this statement.
In its recitation of facts, the circuit court order refers to a statement
Respondent made about drinking before the wreck. This order is most likely
the factual source used by the Court of Appeals. See id. at 198 n.1, 467
S.E.2d at 455 n.1. We find it was error for the Court of Appeals to rely on
the recitation of facts contained in an appellate order instead of restricting
itself to the facts contained in the magistrate's return. See State v. Barbee,
280 S.C. 328, 313 S.E.2d 297 (1984) (magistrate's return is official record of
trial proceedings); State v. Adler, 278 S.C. 66, 292 S.E.2d 185 (1982) (circuit
court only has appellate jurisdiction over judgment from magistrate's court).
7 The Court of Appeals found Morgan inapplicable because that case
affirmed the corpus delicti issue on procedural grounds: "As pointed out
above, the statements of the Defendant did not amount to a confession but
assuming without so deciding that a confession was involved which normally
would require the proof of the corpus delicti before admission, no objection
to the evidence on this basis was interposed." 282 S.C. at 412, 319 S.E.2d
at 337 (emphasis supplied). The issue Morgan refused to address was not
whether the statements amounted to a confession, but whether there was
proof aliunde of the corpus delicti. These are two separate legal issues.
Morgan is almost directly on point regarding the confession issue.
289 (defendant's statement she was the driver of car at time of wreck did not
constitute a confession to reckless homicide, because the defendant never
stated she was driving recklessly). Therefore, the Court of Appeals
incorrectly ruled Respondent's statements constituted a confession.
The State argued to the Court of Appeals, and now argues here, that
if Respondent's statements are not viewed as a confession, the corroboration
rule does not apply.8 We disagree, finding the corroboration rule should
this issue was squarely addressed. Although the State argues otherwise, it
is not at all clear we have strictly limited the corroboration rule to
confessions. Most cases contain no discussion of whether the defendant's
statements constituted a confession before applying the rule. See, e.g., State
v. Owens, 293 S.C. 161, 359 S.E.2d 275 (1987); In the Matter of Perkins, 276
S.C. 378, 379, 278 S.E.2d 781, 782 (1981) (applying rule to minor's
"inculpatory statements"); State v. Speights; 263 S.C. 127, 208 S.E.2d 43
(1974); State v. Watts, 249 S.C. 80, 152 S.E.2d 684 (1967); State v. White,
311 S.C. 289, 296, 428 S.E.2d 740, 741 (Ct. App. 1993) (applying rule to
"inculpatory statements" in felony DUI case where defendant told police he
was driving car, and had been drinking). In some, the rule has been applied
where it is questionable whether confessions were involved. See, e.g.
Williams, 321 S.C. at 381, 468 S.E.2d at 656; Brown, 103 S.C. at 443, 88 S.E.
at 23 (applying rule to "statements of the accused [made before crime was
committed] showing enmity [toward the victim]"); State v. Townsend, 321 S.C.
55, 467 S.E.2d 138 (Ct. App. 1996) (applying rule in DUI case where
defendant told police he was run off road by another driver and drank some
alcohol he had in the car because he was upset about the car wrecking);
White, 311 S.C. 289, 428 S.E.2d 740. But see State v. Epes, 209 S.C. 246,
39 S.E.2d 769 (1946) (using defendant's inculpatory statements to prove
corpus delicti; finding the statements were not confessions); State v. Edwards,
173 S.C. 161, 175 S.E. 277 (1934) (seeming to draw distinction between
statements constituting a confession and those not, stating because there was
no confession of guilt in the case there was no violation of the [corroboration
rule]). The closest we have come to an analysis of whether the corroboration
rule applied to statements not amounting to confessions was in State v.
Morgan (discussed supra in text and footnote 7). The language quoted in
footnote 7 could be read as implying that unless a confession is involved, the
rule is inapplicable. However, because that was not the issue ruled on, and
because the entire corpus delicti issue was affirmed on a procedural ground,
a better interpretation of Morgan would be that it does not speak to this
issue one way br the other.
apply whether a statement amounts to a confession or merely constitutes an
We think that an accused's admissions of essential facts or
elements of the crime, subsequent to the crime, are of the same
character as confessions and that corroboration should be
The need for corroboration extends beyond complete and
conscious admission of guilt -- a strict confession. Facts admitted
that are immaterial as to guilt or innocence need no discussion.
But statements of the accused out of court that show essential
elements of the crime . . . stand differently. Such admissions
have the same possibilities for error as confessions. They, too,
must be corroborated.
Opper v. United States, 348 U.S. 84, 90, 75 S. Ct. 158, 163, 99 L. Ed. 101,
107 (1954) (internal citations omitted). See also State v. Trexler, 342 S.E.2d
878, 880 (N.C. 1986) ("[R]egardless of whether defendant's statements
constitute an actual confession or only amount to an admission, our long
established rule of corpus delicti requires that there be corroborative
evidence, independent of the statements, before defendant may be found
guilty of the crime"); 29A Am. Jur. 2d at § 753; E.H. Schopler, Annotation,
Corroboration of Extrajudicial Confession or Admission, 45 A.L.R.2d 1316,
Il. Proof Aliunde of Corpus Delicti
The State argues the Court of Appeals erred in finding it failed to
provide sufficient independent evidence of the corpus delicti to support
Respondent's conviction. We agree.
In Opper v. United States, the Supreme Court considered "the extent
of the corroboration of admissions necessary as a matter of law for a
judgment of conviction, concluding:
[T]he corroborative evidence need not be sufficient, independent
applies to actual confessions, they are hereby overruled.
of the statements, to establish the corpus delicti. It is necessary,
therefore, to require the Government to introduce substantial
independent evidence which would tend to establish the
trustworthiness of the statement. Thus, the independent
evidence serves a dual function. It tends to make the admission
reliable, thus corroborating it while also establishing
independently the other necessary elements of the offense. It is
sufficient if the corroboration supports the essential facts
admitted sufficiently to justify a jury inference of their truth.
Those facts plus the other evidence besides the admission must,
of course, be sufficient to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
348 U.S. at 93, 75 S. Ct. at 164, 99 L. Ed. at 108-09.
This standard enunciated in Opper has been adopted in other jurisdictions,
including our sister state of North Carolina. See Trexler, 342 S.E.2d at 880
("The corpus delicti rule only requires evidence aliunde the confession which,
when considered with the confession, supports the confession and permits a
reasonable inference that the crime occurred. The independent evidence must
touch or be concerned with the corpus delicti." However, "[t]he rule does not
require that the evidence aliunde the confession prove any element of the
crime.").9 We clarify the law in this State that, consistently with Opper and
confession alone, uncorroborated by other evidence, will not justify a
conviction, but a confession which is corroborated may be considered along
with other evidence to justify the conviction even if it be necessary in
establishing the corpus delicti"); People v. Rhoden, 625 N.E.2d 940, 945 (111.
App. Ct. 1993) ("There must be some independent or corroborating evidence
outside the confession which tends to establish that a crime occurred. If such
evidence tends to prove that the offense occurred and corroborates a
defendant's confession, it may be considered, together with the confession, to
establish the corpus delicti of the offense."); State v. Cardwell, 135 P. 597,
598 (Kan. 1913) ("That a bald confession of one that he has committed a
certain crime, without other evidence or circumstances to corroborate the
confession, will sustain a conviction is, we believe, nowhere contended. But
it seems to be the general rule . . . that any pertinent fact in a criminal case,
including the corpus delicti, may be established by evidence of admissions of
guilt by the accused, supported by circumstantial evidence tending to
corroborate the admissions"); Davis v. State, 97 A.2d 303 (Md. 1953); Kansas
City v. Verstraete, 481 S.W.2d 615, 617 (Mo. Ct. App. 1972) ("If there is
evidence of corroborating circumstances, independent of the confession, which
its progeny, the corroboration rule is satisfied if the State provides sufficient
independent evidence which serves to corroborate the defendant's extra
judicial statements and, together with such statements, permits a reasonable
belief that the crime occurred. Cf. Williams, 321 S.C. at 385 n.2, 468 S.E.2d
at 658 n.2 (emphasizing that "[p]roof of corpus delicti is not a prerequisite to
the admission of an extra-judicial confession of a defendant.").
Applying this rule to the facts at hand, we find the State provided
sufficient independent evidence to support the trustworthiness of
Respondent's statements to police. We further find this independent
evidence, taken together with the statements, allowed a reasonable inference
that the crime of driving under the influence was committed. "The corpus
delicti of DUI is: (1) driving a vehicle; (2) within this State; (3) while under
the influence of intoxicating liquors, drugs, or any other substance of like
character." Townsend, 321 S.C. at 58, 467 S.E.2d at 140. See also Sheppard,
248 S.C. at 466, 150 S.E.2d at 917 (act of operating motor vehicle while
impaired gravamen of offense). Proof of the corpus delicti does not have to
be in the form of direct evidence; it may be established by circumstantial
evidence when it is the best evidence obtainable. Brown v. State, 307 S.C.
465, 415 S.E.2d 811 (1992). If there is any evidence tending to establish the
corpus delicti, then it is the trial court's duty to pass that question on to the
jury. Williams, 321 S.C. at 385, 468 S.E.2d at 658. "We are not here to
determine the sufficiency of the evidence to justify the jury's verdict . . . but
we are concerned only with the question as to the sufficiency of that evidence
to require the trial Judge to submit the issue . . . to the jury." State v.
Blocker, 205 S.C. 303, 307, 31 S.E.2d 908, 910 (1944) (quoting Edwards, 173
S.C. at 165, 175 S.E. at 278). The decision of the Court of Appeals is hereby
reversed and Respondent's conviction is reinstated.
TOAL, MOORE, and BURNETT, JJ., concur. FINNEY, C.J., dissenting
in separate opinion.
both the corroborating circumstances and the confession may be considered
in determining whether or not the corpus delicti has been established"); State
v. George, 257 A.2d 19 (N.H. 1969); Holt v. State, 117 N.W.2d 626 (Wis.
1962) (requiring some corroboration of any significant fact of the crime in
order to produce confidence in the truth of the confession; all elements of
crime do not need to be proved independently). See also 29A Am. Jur. 2d at
FINNEY, C.J.: I respectfully dissent from that part of the majority's opinion
which finds "sufficient independent evidence to support the trustworthiness
of Respondent's statements to police." The independent evidence showed
(1) Respondent's car was involved in an accident;
(2) Respondent registered .14% on a breathalyzer test
administered more than three hours after the car ran off
the road; and
(3) Respondent retracted his original claim that the car had
The absence of any corroborating evidence that the car was being
operated at the time of the accident by a person with impaired faculties
means the State failed to prove the corpus delicti of driving under the
influence. In my opinion, the mere fact that a car is involved in an accident
is simply insufficient to show that the operator was impaired. Cf. In the
Matter of Stacy Ray A., 303 S.C. 291, 400 S.E.2d 141 (1991) overruled in part
on other grounds State v. Rowell, 326 S.C. 313, 487 S.E.2d 185 (1997) (fact
that fatal collision occurred insufficient to show reckless homicide).
I would affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.