Burden of Proof

If you’ve ever read a John Grisham novel or watched an episode of “Law and Order,” you’ve probably seen or heard the term “burden of proof.” But do you know what it actually means?

As specified by the 5th amendment of the Constitution, any U.S. citizen who has been accused of a criminal offense has the right to have his or her case tried in front of a judge or jury. In addition, because you are innocent until proven guilty, the court must prove you are guilty—this is where burden of proof comes into play.

Anytime a person is accused of a crime, the state becomes responsible for proving his or her guilt in court. To do this, a prosecutor must submit evidence to support the state’s charge. As a result, the responsibility of proving the case—or in other words, the burden of proof—lies completely on the prosecution.

Due to the penalties that often accompany a criminal conviction (e.g. a DUI charge), the prosecution must do much more than simply prove the accused “probably” committed the offense in question—rather, his or her guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In simple terms, this means that the evidence against the individual must be so substantial that no reasonable person would doubt his or her guilt.

Along with proving that you actually committed the crime in question, the prosecution must also prove you intended to commit the offense. If the prosecution fails to prove either of these things, you cannot be convicted.

Although the concept of burden of proof is most often associated with criminal law, it is also applicable in civil cases (non-criminal cases involving two individuals, usually related to property issues, contracts, personal injuries, and other similar conflicts). Unlike criminal cases, however, the burden of proof in a civil trial lies on the defendant (the person who has been accused).

While the plaintiff (the person doing the accusing) must have evidence to support his or her claim, the defendant is responsible for proving the plaintiff’s version of events is incorrect. The judge or jury, in turn, must then determine whose story is most likely true—in civil cases, the concept of reasonable doubt no longer applies.