Exculpatory Law & Legal Definition


Exculpatory describes evidence which tends to justify or exonerate an accused person's actions and tends to show that they had a lack of criminal intent. It is the opposite of inculpatory evidence, which tends to incriminate or prove guilt. The government has a limited duty under the Due Process Clause to disclose exculpatory information to a criminal defendant. However, that duty arises only when disclosure is necessary to ensure a fair trial.

The validity of a guilty plea has been argued when exculpatory evidence is not known to the accused at the time of the plea. The Supreme Court has held that due process does not require the disclosure of material exculpatory impeachment information before a defendant enters into a plea bargain.

In contract law, an exculpatory clause relieves one party to the agreement of liability as a result of actions (or lack of actions) performed in the course of carrying out the terms of the contract. In a trust agreement, such a clause protects the trustee from liability resulting from any act performed in good faith under the trust agreement. In a lease, the exculpatory clause relieves the landlord of liability for personal injury to tenants or damage to tenants' property. In many states, exculpatory clauses in rental agreements are not enforceable. Because exculpatory clauses are a waiver of the right to sue, courts will often examine factors such as the relative bargaining power of the parties, how broad the waiver is, whether the clause was prominently disclosed, and other factors, in determining the fairness of upholding such a clause.