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Physical Evidence: Definition, Types & Law

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  • 0:04 Types of Evidence
  • 1:25 Physical Evidence
  • 2:15 Applying Evidence to a Case
  • 3:58 Authentication
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Evidence at a crime scene that is tangible is considered physical evidence. This lesson discusses physical evidence, the varieties of evidence, and how it pertains to the law.

Types of Evidence

In a legal court case, there are several types of evidence:

  • Physical evidence, also called real evidence: Actual tangible evidence that can be touched and picked up that is relevant to the case.
  • Demonstrative evidence: Evidence that requires a demonstration, such as a chart or a video.
  • Testimonial evidence, also called personal evidence: Evidence brought forth by witnesses, such as testimony.
  • Documentary evidence: This evidence is documents like wills, letters, and other documentation. Although also physical in type, it is sectioned in its own category.

We are going to focus on physical evidence, which is any evidence that is physical and found at the scene. There are other smaller categories of physical evidence as well, such as digital evidence, which refers to computer evidence, which has become more and more important as computers and social media become intrinsic to society. Exculpatory evidence can be any of the previous types of evidence, but it must be evidence that shows the innocence of the defendant. And lastly there is scientific evidence, like DNA. It would also fall under the category of physical evidence, but it is scientific as well.

Physical Evidence

Physical evidence can include anything from objects, like the murder weapon, to blood splatter, DNA, and even fingerprints. Although you cannot hold fingerprints, they still can be pulled off a wall and turned into physical evidence for the jury and legal representation to review. This evidence is then used to present cases for or against a defendant, as long as the evidence has been approved by the judge.

During the examination of the scene after a crime, everything that may be tied to the investigation is taken into custody to determine whether it pertains to the case. It is then taken back to a lab or station to be analyzed. The police will need to make sure to keep a log of the evidence on file, so that there is no chance of evidence tampering, which can affect the credibility of the trial.

Applying Evidence to a Case

You might think that if evidence is marked, for example, with DNA on a gun, or a signature on a document, then it is easy to apply it to a case. Sometimes that's true, but not always. And what if the connection to the case isn't so clear? When it comes to physical evidence there are a few legalities to take into account. Not all physical evidence will be admitted into court. Some physical evidence may be denied because of the following:

The evidence cannot be tied to the case.

First of all, if the evidence cannot be tied to a case, such as through DNA, fingerprints, or witness testimony, then it cannot be used during a trial, even though it may be relevant.

The evidence is not relevant to the case.

This means that the evidence is similar to what is needed for the case, but it is determined to be irrelevant. For example, there are two knives at a criminal scene, one with blood and DNA, and one that was not near the scene, but found in a survey of the area and picked up just in case. However, the second knife appears to be old and rusty. Then it could be determined that the old rusty knife was not there due to the crime.

The evidence was obtained without due process or a warrant.

This could happen if police, or other investigation unit, goes into a home without permission or warrant and takes physical evidence. This evidence would not be allowed in court.

The evidence was not handled properly.

If someone at a criminal scene handles evidence without gloves, or tramples all over blood splatter, it can make it impossible to use the physical evidence. It is now changed and cannot be correctly interpreted.

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