Understanding the Burdens of Proof in Criminal and Civil Cases

Let’s say that, after getting into a car accident, you’re arrested for drunk driving. You’re charged with DUI and then, to make matters worse, you’re named in a personal injury lawsuit. The driver of the other car claims that they’ve sustained severe injuries and that you’re to blame. 

Here’s the good news – the results of your criminal case won’t necessarily impact the results of your civil case. The reverse is true, as well. You could find that you walk away from your criminal DUI case scot-free, only to find that you’re held liable in the civil suit. This is often the case when defendants face both criminal and civil repercussions after an accident.

Why? One of the biggest reasons is that different burdens of proof are required to prevail in criminal and civil cases. Here’s what you should know.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: The Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases

When you’re charged with a violation of state or federal law, the government has to prove that you’re guilty. In order to do this, prosecutors must demonstrate that you are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What’s involved with meeting this burden of proof? There’s no hard and fast definition at the federal level. In fact, the definition has been the source of contention in the courts for years. Most states have taken it upon themselves to provide a definition and clarify the meaning in jury instructions.

In California, the state tells jurors that a “reasonable doubt” exists when they are left “with an abiding conviction that the charge is true.” Jury instructions continue, explaining that “evidence need not eliminate all possible doubt because everything in life is open to some possible or imaginary doubt.” So, in the simplest possible terms, beyond a reasonable doubt means that, based on the evidence, the charge is very likely true. Upon analysis, you’re left with the impression that there’s a very slim chance – if any – that the charge is false.

This is an extremely high burden of proof. It’s also quite subjective. One juror might decide that they are persuaded that the charge is true beyond a reasonable doubt, while another might disagree. 

Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of proof, which is why it’s reserved for criminal cases. The government cannot secure a conviction unless this lofty burden is satisfied by direct and/or circumstantial evidence.

A Preponderance of the Evidence: The Burden of Proof in Civil Cases

The burden of proof in civil cases is much less than in criminal ones. In personal injury cases, the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff. So, the accuser – or person who got hurt – has to convince a factfinder that their allegations are true based on a preponderance of the evidence.

A preponderance of the evidence means that the allegations are more likely true than not. Specifically, it means “the burden of proof is met when the party with the burden convinces the fact finder that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true.” So, in theory, a plaintiff could convince a jury to decide in their favor just by making it seem that their side of the story is slightly truer than the defendant’s.

Are There Other Burdens of Proof?

Yes. Sometimes there are situations when different burdens of proof will come into play. This is true in both criminal and civil matters. Here are some other burdens of proof that might be relevant to your criminal or civil case.

Reasonable Suspicion: A police officer must have a “reasonable suspicion” that you’ve broken the law or done something wrong before you can be stopped. This involves more than a hunch or gut feeling. Rather, this suspicion must be based on articulable facts and the totality of the circumstances.

Reasonable to Believe: A police officer can go back and search a vehicle again if they have “reason to believe” that there is additional evidence of a crime. The level of proof needed to establish this burden is somewhere between reasonable suspicion and probable cause.

Probable Cause: Probable cause means that there’s “a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.” There’s no set percentage that establishes this probability. However, courts have traditionally reasoned that 51% is a good threshold.

Clear and convincing evidence: Clear and convincing evidence requires a higher degree of certainty than a preponderance of the evidence. One court held that this burden is satisfied if a factfinder believes that the “evidence is highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue.”

Whether you’ve been charged with a crime or involved in a civil lawsuit, burdens of proof will play a critical role in your case. That’s why it’s always best to make sure that you are represented by a qualified attorney who specializes in the type of case you have.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment