Burden of proof is a vital legal component that states that one must provide sufficient evidence to support an argument or claim in order for the jury or judge to rule in your favor. Most Americans are familiar with ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard that is used for criminal cases. But civil lawsuits have a different standard known as ‘preponderance of the evidence.’
Criminal and civil cases are different in many ways. But evidence will always be vital to deciding all cases, whether they are criminal or civil. The burden of proof always rests with the plaintiff, rather than the defendant. Prosecutors in a criminal matter must show the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But plaintiffs in a civil trial only must prove the case by a preponderance of the evidence. It is important to understand how these standards of proof differ if you are facing a criminal or civil trial.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
In all criminal cases in the United States, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The plaintiff in criminal cases is required to produce evidence that proves your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime you were accused of. This means the criminal case must be proven in such a way that no reasonable person could reasonably doubt your guilt. There can still be doubt in the mind of a juror, but the doubt cannot affect the belief of a ‘reasonable person’ that you are guilty.
The reason there is such a high burden of proof in criminal cases can be explained in part by Blackstone’s formulation. This states that it is better than 10 guilty people go free than one innocent person be convicted. The consequences of convicting a person wrongly are serious. This is why courts in the US always err on the side of a person being innocent of a crime.
Another important standard in criminal law is probable cause. This standard balances effective police practices against our constitutional 4th amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. The case Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983) outlined in the US Supreme Court the circumstances test that is required to determine if a police officer has probable cause to do a search and seizure. This standard requires the police and judges to make a practical and common sense decision whether this is a ‘fair probability’ that evidence of a crime will be found in a certain area or place.
Courts for many years have debated what the government must do to prove its case in a criminal trial beyond a reasonable doubt. It is clear that it is not enough for the jury or judge to think the person is guilty. The evidence of guilt must be so strong that no reasonable person would doubt it. This level of standard requires the evidence to provide no possible explanation or conclusion that the person is guilty of the crime.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court case Victor v. Nebraska, beyond a reasonable doubt is one that is based upon a ‘real, tangible substantial basis.’ It has to be such doubt as would cause one to be gravely uncertain about the guilt of the person. The case also states that reasonable doubt is not a ‘mere possible doubt.’ It is a substantial and actual doubt. It is the type of doubt that a ‘reasonable man’ can entertain. Also, what is required is not mathematical or absolute certainty, but a moral certainty of the person’s guilt.
Beyond a reasonable doubt still does not mean the prosecutor must eliminate all unreasonable doubts form the minds of the jury. This would be an impossible standard to meet; after all, only the actor himself can be certain whether he committed the crime or not.
Preponderance of the Evidence
Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, have a lower level of proof required. The plaintiff in these cases only have to show that you are more likely to have committed the act in question than not. The standard for preponderance of the evidence is met if there is more than a 50% chance that you committed the act.
This standard is the one used in personal injury lawsuits and wrongful death lawsuits. In these cases, the injured party has a responsibility to prove the company or person is legally liable for his injuries. But he only need to prove it is more likely than not that the person caused his injuries.
To prove that you are liable to the plaintiff for financial damages, the plaintiff must prove that all elements of the claim against you are more likely than not to have occurred. For instance, if the plaintiff sues you for negligence, the plaintiff must prove the four basic elements of negligence:
- The defendant had a duty of care to you
- The defendant is in breach of that duty
- The breach led to your injury
- Money damages would provide compensation for your injury
If the plaintiff is unable to prove that each of these points more likely than not occurred, the case cannot be won in civil court.
However, some civil cases have a burden of proof that is elevated to a higher standard known as clear and convincing evidence. This burden of proof mandates the plaintiff to prove that a fact is ‘substantially more likely than not’ to be true. Some US courts have described the standard as requiring the plaintiff to provide proof there is ‘high probability’ a certain fact is true. This standard therefore has a higher threshold than preponderance of the evidence. But it does not rise to the high standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Same Conduct Can Lead to Criminal and Civil Liability
Criminal and civil cases are treated very differently in court. But many people do not know the same conduct can lead to criminal and civil liability. One of the most famous examples in recent history is the trial of OJ Simpson. The same alleged conduct – the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson – led to both a murder trial and a wrongful death trial.
In the murder trial, OJ Simpson faced a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt; he was acquitted of the crime. However, a year later, a civil jury found that a preponderance of the evidence – the standard in a civil trial – indicated that OJ Simpson was responsible for the death of his wife.
- Standards of Proof. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.1800attorney.com/standards-of-proof/
- Preponderance of the Evidence Vs. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.legalmatch.com/law-library/article/preponderance-of-the-evidence-vs-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt.html?intakeredesigned=1