Frequently Asked Questions - What Does Burden of Proof Mean in Law?
Anyone who has ever seen a television show about the criminal justice system or heard about one person suing another in civil litigation has heard the term “burden of proof”, but what exactly does that term mean? As with many legal terms, the meaning will change based on the context in which it’s used as well as the jurisdiction or court it’s being used in.
One definition of “burden of proof” relates to which party in the judicial system has the obligation to establish certain facts and theories of a case. In the United States criminal law system, the burden of proof is always on the government. If you’re in federal court, the United States district attorney or similar prosecutor has the burden of proof. In state court, it’s the district attorney or state attorney who has the burden of proof. This means that being arrested or charged with a crime is not sufficient evidence of committing a crime. In fact, it’s no evidence at all. If you are being considered for sitting on a jury, any criminal defense attorney will ask you questions to make sure you understand this. They will be something along the lines of asking you how you would vote if the state presented no evidence. Anyone who says they would vote guilty because the police don’t arrest innocent people or the state doesn’t take people to trial if they haven’t done anything is not going to be selected for trial. Why is this? One of the bedrock principles of our criminal court system is that you are presumed innocent. This means that it is not your legal duty to prove that you didn’t commit a crime. Rather the state has to show that you did commit a crime. If they can’t do that, you go free. In fact, “presumed innocent” is really a bit of a misnomer. It’s really a “presumption of not guilty”. You can be a hardened criminal that has committed many crimes in the past with a lot of evidence against you in a pending trial. Most people would not call you innocent in the sense of being virtuous, but you might very well be “not guilty” based on who has the burden of proof and what that person has been able to show.
In a civil trial the party with the burden of proof is usually the party who brings the case. That person is often referred to as the plaintiff. The party or parties on the other side are referred to as the defendants. Most civil actions do not involve the government, but even the ones that do put the burden of proof on the party requesting relief. A very common civil action arises out of motor vehicle accidents. If you are driving down the road and somebody runs into the back of you and causing you serious physical injury, there’s a good chance that you will become a plaintiff in a civil court action. You become a plaintiff when suit is filed on your behalf against the person who rear ended you, the defendant. As a plaintiff in this civil action, you will have the “burden of proof”. In other words it will be up to you and your lawyer to establish certain facts that support the basic requirements of a case. If you can’t do that, then the judgment will be for the defendant.
So as you can see, one of the meanings of “burden of proof” refers to the particular party in the legal system who has to show something in order to receive the requested relief. Another meaning of the “burden of proof” relates to how strong a case has to be in order for a party to prevail. In criminal cases, the burden of proof is the well-known “beyond a reasonable doubt”. This is the highest burden in the criminal justice system. The exact definition depends on what court system you’re in. In the federal court system proof beyond a reasonable doubt is going to require “proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to act upon it in the most important of his own affairs.” In a state court, the definition might be something along the lines that the evidence is so strong or convincing that you wouldn’t hesitate to take away somebody’s liberty or property. It is important to recognize that the legal standard of proof in a criminal case is not beyond all doubt. Beyond all doubt means that there is no cockamamie, crazy explanation for what happened that would mean that the defendant didn’t do it. It is really an impossible standard, because you can almost always come up with some weird scenario that would allow you to say maybe he didn’t do it. But if you have established fact on top of fact with no rational explanation to disbelieve all the facts, you may have met your burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt.
Let’s say you have a clear video of somebody shooting another person without any apparent provocation. The video is clear enough to identify somebody through an online database. Also the shooter dropped his wallet and it’s the same person that comes up in the database. You not only have a video, but you also have several eyewitnesses who claim to know the shooter, say he did it, and have no discernible reason to lie. When the apparent shooter is arrested, he still has the gun that was used in the shooting and he has gunshot residue on his shirt sleeve. A half-eaten hamburger left at the scene has DNA evidence that matches the shooter within 99.99999 percent probability. Finally, the person you arrested has a strong motive to have shot the victim, and he admits that he did it for financial gain. When you stack up that evidence on top of another, most people would say there’s no reasonable explanation to think that the person you arrested didn’t commit a crime. Possible explanations like maybe the shooter has an identical twin brother who stole his brother’s wallet and also convinced his brother to lie about being the shooter just aren’t reasonable.
In a civil action, the burden of proof is along the lines of a “preponderance” of the evidence. This means that the evidence shows that something is more likely than not. It has slightly higher than a 50/50 probability. To put it in meteorological terms, if the weatherman said there is a 60% chance of rain today that means you are more likely than not to receive rain today. A preponderance of the viewing area should get rain. But if he said there was a 90% chance of rain, you would probably say that you are likely to get rain but it’s not certain. It’s not beyond a reasonable doubt that it’s going to rain.
Sometimes the difference of burden of proofs can have a profound impact in a case. One of the most famous examples is the case of OJ Simpson. He was tried in two different court systems - one was a criminal trial about alleged murders and the other was a civil trial for wrongful death. In both cases, OJ was essentially defending against the same accusation - that he took lives of people without any justification or excuse for doing so. Aside from the facts that different juries heard the cases and that the remedies sought were entirely different, there was another major difference. In the criminal trial, the State of California had the burden of proving that OJ did it beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense did everything they could to poke holes in the case attacking even the DNA evidence presented. They were trying to convince the jury that there was some possible way that OJ didn’t kill his estranged wife and Ron Goldman. As almost everyone knows, the state failed to meet its burden of proof in the criminal justice system. Many people might not recall that the outcome was different in the civil trial for wrongful death. In that case, much of the evidence presented was the same. Many of the elements of what the person who brought the respective cases are the same, but in the civil case the burden of proof was different. In that case, the Goldman family only had to show that it was more likely than not that OJ wrongfully killed the victims. Because the standard of proof was much lower, the Goldman family got a civil judgment against OJ Simpson.
There are other levels of burden of proof that are applicable to different stages of the criminal and civil justice systems. Those standards in ascending order as to the amount of proof needed are: some evidence, reasonable indications, reasonable suspicion, reason to believe, probable cause, some credible evidence, substantial evidence, preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, and finally beyond reasonable doubt. This is a continuum of the level of proof required from least to most. “Reasonable suspicion”, a relatively low level of proof, is all that is required for a law enforcement officer to make a lawful brief investigative stop. It’s more than a hunch, but not necessarily a lot more. “Probable cause” on the other hand is a higher standard of proof. The same cop who pulled you over based on a reasonable suspicion can only arrest you if there is a probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.
These are some of the examples of burden of proof in the judicial system. Understanding what level of proof is required and how one goes about achieving that level of proof is a matter for professionals. If you have questions about a case you might have and the burden of proof that applies to your case, please contact TrialPro for further discussion. One of our attorneys will be happy to assist.