Burdens of Proof in Civil and Criminal Law

What is a Burden of Proof? 

Simply put, the burden of proof is what one side, either the plaintiff or the prosecution, must prove to win their case. Defendants never carry a burden to prove their innocence or to prove they are not liable. Defendants do not even have to put forth a defense in civil or criminal cases. 

What Types of Burdens are there in the Legal system? 

1. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 

-We are most familiar with this one, because it is used in criminal cases and we hear it everytime Law and Order is on TV. This is the highest burden in our legal system and that's because someone's life and freedom is on the line. What does it mean? There is technically no definition for beyond a reasonable doubt but it is described like this: "no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thereby overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty."

2. Clear and Convincing Evidence 

-This is used when CPS is taking children away from parents for abuse or neglect. Clear and Convincing proof means that the evidence presented by a party during the trial must be highly and substantially more probable to be true than not and the trier of fact must have a firm belief or conviction in its factuality.

3. Preponderance of the Evidence 

-Used in civil cases like personal injury lawsuits. If you are reading this on our law firm's website and realize we are a personal injury firm, you now understand that our firm must meet this burden in all of our personal injury lawsuits. I simply describe preponderance of the evidence to juries as "More Likely than Not." In other words when you are hearing the Plaintiff's side of the story and you believe that the evidence presented supports that it is more likely than not true that the Plaintiff was injured by the defendant, then they have met their burden. 

4. Probable Cause 

-Used for search warrants, arrest warrants and grand jury proceedings in criminal cases. It is also hard to define and can mean different things depending on what court you are in and what judge you have. Probable cause  is defined as "sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime."

5. Reasonable Suspicion 

-What officers must have to pull you over. It is defined as "less than probable cause, the legal standard for arrests and warrants, but more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch, it must be based on specific and articulable facts, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, and the suspicion must be associated with the specific individual."

Another question I have people ask me all the time is can you pursue both criminal and civil action for the same event or events? 

The answer is yes, but it depends on the type of case. We pursue many cases for sexual abuse of minors after a criminal action has taken place. Why do we do that? Because there are different burdens or proof and different causes of action between criminal and civil cases. The classic example I give clients when explaining the differences is the O.J. Simpson trial. O.J. was prosecuted for murder in a criminal case and found not guilty by a panel of 12 jurors. A few years after his criminal trial, O.J. was sued for wrongful death of the same victim and found liable. How can this be? Because there are different burdens of proof in criminal and civil cases and different causes of action. In O.J.'s criminal case the burden of proof was beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest burden in the legal system. In his civil suit, the burden was preponderance of the evidence a much lower burden of proof. Wrongful death is also a different cause of action than murder. So O.J. can essentially be tried for the same case and by the same evidence and be found not guilty criminally but liable civilly. 

Our firm does a similar thing with criminal and civil cases. We bring cases against sex offenders and those who allowed them to commit crimes when there may not be enough evidence criminally to successfully find an abuser guilty. With a lower standard in civil cases, we can successfully find the abuser liable even if they could not in a criminal court. 

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