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The Burden of Proof

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We often hear about the burden of proof in the media. If you’ve ever wondered, “What’s the burden of proof?” this post explains what you should know about this deep legal concept.

The plaintiff and defendant are responsible to prove claims made in a trial. In general, the individual who raises a legal claim has the responsibility to prove it. The obligation of the burden of proof, and the amount of proof needed, differs between cases.

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Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case

To understand how an individual must make his or her burden of proof, the claimant must know: 1) what he or she must prove and 2) how completely he or she must prove it.

The burden of proof may include two separate ideas, establishing which party has the burden, or it identifies the proof needed to identify factual issues. This second concept is known as the burden of persuasion. Imagine the burden of persuasion as the bar that the hurdler (the burden of proof) must clear.

It’s important to understand that criminal cases involve much more than beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • The prosecution isn’t required to prove the defendant’s guilt with absolute certainty.
  • The general rule is that the prosecution has the burden of proof in a criminal case but, importantly, there are times when this burden must be borne by the defendant.
  • If the state charges a defendant with murder, the prosecutor bears the burdens of proof and persuasion. The state must show that the accused committed the crime of murder—and it must prove the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt”

The burden of persuasion in a criminal case is the loftiest standard of proof in the trial. It is the highest level of proof.

The Supreme Court writes that the burden of proof is met beyond a reasonable doubt when no additional logical explanation can be arrived at from the case facts, other than that the defendant committed the crime. In Victor v. Nebraska, 511 US 1 (1994), the Supreme Court referred to the standard as “such doubt…gives rise to…grave uncertainty…by reasons of the evidence or lack thereof…”

Unless the prosecution meets the high bar of beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant’s presumption of innocence remains. In this scenario, the defendant should be determined not guilty.

Probable cause

There are several other standards that may apply in the context of criminal law, including the standard of probable cause.

The standard balances the individual’s right to privacy and unreasonable invasion under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This standard requires judges and law enforcement officers to make practical and common-sense decisions about whether sufficient evidence exists to bring charges against a citizen.

Reasonable belief and reasonable suspicion

Additional standards needed to consider evidence in a criminal context include reasonable belief and reasonable suspicion:

  • Standards of proof must be considered “reasonable” in the context of the crime/circumstances.
  • In Terry v. Ohio 392 US 1 (1968), reasonable suspicion happens when a law enforcement officer identifies “unusual conduct” which leads him or her to “reasonably” decide that “criminal activity may be afoot” and that individuals with whom the officer is interacting may be “armed and dangerous…”

Credible evidence

The credible evidence standard is another commonly applied standard of proof in some criminal proceedings:

  • Credible evidence is evidence that’s “worthy of belief” and/or worthy of the consideration of the jury.
  • Evidence that is probable, reasonable, or natural may be considered credible.

When the Burden Shifts

Essentially, if the prosecution is able to establish a fact that proves a part of the crime, the burden is likely to switch to the defendant. This may happen because he or she can raise doubts about it:

  • The defendant might not raise doubts about each fact proven by the prosecution.
  • The prosecution’s goal is to present sufficient evidence to yield a guilty verdict.
  • The more convincing the prosecution’s evidence is, the larger the defendant’s burden of proof may be.

For example, if the prosecution presents that police found an expensive necklace on the defendant’s person that records show was stolen:

  • To defend a burglary charge, it’s important for the defendant to provide a reasonable explanation as to how he or she came to legally acquire the necklace.
  • He or she could offer testimony that the necklace was a gift or produce a receipt showing payment for it.
  • At that point, the burden shifts back to the prosecution.

Challenging the standard of beyond reasonable doubt can be complex. If you or someone you love has been charged with a criminal offense, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to evaluate your case.

Intent in a Criminal Case

In almost all criminal cases, the prosecutor must show the defendant’s intent:

  • In a theft crime, the prosecutor must show the defendant intended to take something and not return it to the owner.
  • The alleged thief’s intent was to achieve a specific outcome, making the theft a specific intent crime.
  • In comparison, the prosecution must prove that the defendant committed an act in question in a general intent crime.
  • For instance, assault and battery is considered a general intent crime. The prosecutor must show that the defendant intended to strike someone or had a disregard for the risk involved in hitting someone.
  • In contrast, assault with intent to rob is another example of a specific intent crime. The prosecutor must prove that the defendant intended to strike another person and also had the intent to steal from him or her.

Criminal Case Affirmative Defenses

The defendant may argue that specific circumstances of the crime are a full defense to his or her otherwise criminal actions. The best known criminal affirmative defense is self-defense. This generally means the accused acknowledges that he or she committed an alleged action but argues that it was necessary to protect himself or herself from potential bodily injury or death:

  • If the accused killed a would-be mugger, this is an example of self-defense.
  • If the party is able to prove a fact is most likely to be true, this is an example of preponderance of the evidence, the lowest type of evidentiary standard.
  • Necessity, duress, insanity, or entrapment are examples of affirmative defenses.

Differences between the Burden of Proof and the Standard of Proof

The legal terms burden and standard are frequently used interchangeably, but there are important distinctions:

  • Having the burden in a criminal trial requires the party to prove the case to the judge or jury, the trier of fact.
  • Prosecutors have the burden of proving the accused committed the crime.
  • Opposing sides may be held to different standards of proof.

Presumption of innocence

We have the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence. The state or federal government must prove that the defendant is guilty. In other words, the defendant doesn’t prove himself or herself innocent:

  • The government typically has the burden of proof in a criminal case.
  • The defendant is presumed innocent until he or she is proven guilty.

Standard of proof

The standard of proof considers the extent to which the side with the burden of proof must prove the case or part of the case:

  • The standard of proof is highest when the stakes are similarly high.

Failure to Meet the Burden of Proof

Let’s imagine that Jill is on trial for capital murder in Texas. The key evidence in the trial is a murder weapon found in Jill’s vanity table drawer when law enforcement officers searched her property:

  • Before the trial, Jill’s criminal defense lawyer submits a motion to suppress the weapon evidence. A judge deemed mentally incompetent signed the search warrant that permitted the search of Jill’s home.
  • The criminal defense attorney’s motion is successful, and the judge concludes that the weapon evidence is inadmissible.
  • The prosecution is undeterred. The trial proceeds.
  • Because the prosecution has no additional credible, convincing evidence that Jill committed murder, the prosecution has failed to meet their burden of proof.
  • Jill is acquitted.

Summing Up: Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is one or both party’s obligation to prove and support a defense, charge, or allegation. Circumstantial evidence is evidence shown to indirectly prove a fact. Finding the defendant’s fingerprints indirectly proves that he or she was at the scene and that he or she committed the crime.

Direct evidence, in contrast, proves the fact. If the accused confesses that he or she committed the crime, the confession is direct proof.

The legal standard used to satisfy the burden of proof may include (but isn’t limited to) 1) beyond a reasonable doubt, 2) clear and convincing evidence, 3) probable cause, 4) reasonable belief, 5) preponderance of the evidence, 6) reasonable indications, 7) reasonable suspicion, 8) credible evidence, 9) some form of evidence, and 10) substantial evidence.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Houston, TX

If you or someone you care about has been charged with a crime in Texas, you need to contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Contact Mr. Brett A. Podolsky to schedule an initial case evaluation at 713-227-0087 now.

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