What is “beyond a reasonable doubt?”

One of the bedrock principles of American criminal justice jurisprudence is the concept of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  But what the heck does that mean, and how does it work in practice?

Every criminal defendant has a number of important constitutional rights.  Two of the most sacred are the right to the presumption of innocence and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  These two concepts work together to govern the most basic processes of our criminal justice system.

What this means in practice is that every person charged with a crime in American is innocent until their guilt is proved by the government producing evidence that proves their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  The “beyond a reasonable doubt” part of that refers to the “burden of proof” that the government has in proving guilt.  In plain language, it’s a measurement of “how certain” the jury must be that a person is guilty before they can return a guilty verdict.

American law applies several different burdens of proof in legal proceedings.  For example, in order for a police officer to stop a car, he or she must have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the driver has committed a crime or traffic violation.  In practice, this burden generally just means that the officer needs to have a fair and reasonable basis for stopping the car and isn’t doing so just because he or she feels like it.  This is a very low burden of proof.

Civil cases often apply a “preponderance of the evidence” burden.  This is often summarized as “more likely than not”, or “anything more than 50% certain”.   If someone sues you for being at fault in a traffic accident, the jury will have to decide whether to find you at fault or not.  They will look at the evidence and apply that burden of proof – if they decide that it is more likely than not that you were at fault, they will return a verdict in favor of the person suing you.  This is a moderate burden of proof – much more difficult than the “reasonable, articulable suspicion” burden discussed above, but far less than beyond a reasonable doubt.

Another commonly used burden of proof is “clear and convincing evidence.”  This burden requires that a case be proven to be “highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue.”  In plain language, this level of proof is one that would leave a juror pretty confident, but not 100% certain, that the evidence has proven whatever claim is being alleged.  The law doesn’t apply a percentage to this standard, but most professionals would agree that it’s somewhere in the ballpark of “75% certain.”

Finally, we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  This is the highest standard applied by the American legal system, and it applies to the amount of proof required in all criminal cases.  Minnesota courts usually instruct juries that:

“Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is such proof as ordinarily prudent men and women would act upon in their most important affairs.  A reasonable doubt is a doubt based upon reason and common sense.  It does not mean a fanciful or capricious doubt, nor does it mean beyond all possibility of doubt.”

In plain language, this is generally described as being “very certain, but not necessarily 100% certain.”  I’ve also heard it described as the level of certainty that reasonable people apply when making their most important life decisions, such as whether to get married, buy a home, quit their job, etc.  Again, the law does not apply a percentage to this standard, but most professionals would agree that it’s somewhere around “90+% certain.” 

Familiarity with these principles is a crucial part of criminal defense, so it’s important that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side when facing criminal charges.

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