Harmless Constitutional Errors

In Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), the Court concluded that some constitutional errors could be considered harmless. Id. The Court struck down the California Supreme Court's application of the harmless error provision found in the California Constitution, which forbade reversal "unless 'the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.'" Id. at 20 (quoting Cal. Const. art. VI, 4 1/2 (1914)). The error complained of in Chapman was an improper comment on the defendants' exercise of their right not to testify against themselves in a criminal proceeding. The Supreme Court concluded that this error intruded on the constitutional protections of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and that it was therefore the Court's responsibility to protect these rights by reviewing the error independently. Recognizing that their prior cases indicated that "there are some constitutional rights so basic to a fair trial that their infraction can never be treated as harmless error," the Court ultimately concluded that "before a federal constitutional error can be held harmless, the court must be able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at 23-24. This harmless error analysis adopted in Chapman requires appellate courts to first consider the nature of the error complained of and then the effect this error had on the triers of fact. See id. at 25-26. The Court applied this test to the facts in Chapman and enunciated the oft-quoted standard that reversal was required in that case because it was "completely impossible . . . to say that the State has demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the prosecutor's comments and the trial judge's instruction did not contribute to petitioners' convictions." 386 U.S. at 26.