What Is the Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases?

The burden of proof depends on whether the case is criminal or civil in nature. It refers to the amount of evidence necessary for a particular party to win a claim, allegation, or defense. Burdens fall on a scale from low to high.

Criminal cases have the highest burdens. The United States Constitution requires that the government meet a very high burden when alleging crimes against another -- the defendant. Since the Constitution expressly calls for a high burden of proof, no state can lower the burden, though they could, theoretically, make a higher burden. The criminal burden of proof is that of "beyond a reasonable doubt." The exact meaning of this is hard to explain.

As a criminal defense attorney, I always explain it this way:

Imagine that the burden of proof lies somewhere on the scales of justice. With a lower standard such as "by a preponderance of evidence," the alleging party only needs to tip the scales ever so slightly to prove their point. A feather would be enough to tip the scales and it makes it more likely than not the alleging party has proven their point. Now in criminal cases, the scales of justice need to be tipped practically all the way to one side. There really needs to be no doubt that the defendant committed the crime. If any reasonable person could find this person innocent, then they should be found not guilty. The odds really need to be tipped against the defendant.

This high burden may seem like a great advantage to a criminal defense attorney but you need to remember that the government always has unlimited resources to prosecute you, juries tend to believe the government, and most judges are former prosecutors. These facts certainly even out the scales and make the job of a criminal defense attorney quite difficult.

If you have more questions about the criminal burden of proof, please contact a reputable criminal defense attorney. You can call us at (559) 374-2012 or send a message on this website.