Burdens of Proof

In the legal system, there are various standards or burdens of proof. Meaning, how strong the evidence needs to be for police to stop a citizen, evidence to obtain a warrant, evidence to win a civil lawsuit, evidence to terminate a parent’s rights and ultimately, how strong the evidence needs to be to take someone’s freedom and liberty.  It is a ladder of the strength of evidence needed in each of these scenarios.

The burden of proof is always on the person who brings a claim in a dispute.

Reasonable Suspicion
Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard that applies in different criminal-law contexts, most often where searches and seizures are involved. It requires that officers have an objectively reasonable basis for suspecting criminal activity before detaining someone. In addition, before conducting a pat-down, officers must reasonably suspect that a subject is armed and dangerous. Officers can, however, ask people to stop and answer questions without reasonable suspicion.

When an officer conducts a “pat-down,” they are only allowed to pat the outer clothing. During a pat-down, officers are feeling for anything that could be used to harm the officer, such as a knife or gun. Officers are not allowed to go into a person’s pockets without permission or consent from that person, a search warrant or if the person is under arrest and the search is “incident to arrest.” So, if an officer feels a soft, plastic baggy inside someone’s pocket during a pat-down, that is not enough to legally go into the person’s pocket.

Probable Cause

In United States law, probable cause is the standard by which police authorities have reason to obtain a warrant for the arrest of a suspected criminal or the issuing of a search warrant. It is also the standard by which grand juries issue criminal indictments. The principle behind the standard is to limit the power of authorities to perform random or abusive searches (unlawful search and seizure) and to promote lawful evidence gathering and procedural form during criminal arrest and prosecution. The standard also applies to personal or property searches.

The term comes from the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Preponderance of the Evidence  
If someone is suing over money or monetary damages or breath of contract, the standard in civil court is “preponderance of the evidence.” Simply, this means just a tipping of the scales of justice in one party’s favor – 51%.   The legal definition for this standard of proof states: “the greater weight of the evidence required in a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit for the trier of fact (jury or judge without a jury) to decide in favor of one side or the other. This preponderance is based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence. Preponderance of the evidence is required in a civil case and is contrasted with “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the more severe test of evidence required to convict in a criminal trial.”

Clear and Convincing Evidence

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. In this standard, a greater degree of believability must be met than the common standard of proof in civil actions, which only requires that the facts as a threshold be more likely than not to prove the issue for which they are asserted.

This is the standard applied in family court when there is an action to terminate a parent’s rights.

When discussing the ladder of burdens of proof in jury selection during a criminal trial, I often ask jurors, “How sure would you want the evidence to be before someone could strip you of your parental rights?” The answer is always “Damn sure.” Then I turn to the even higher burden in criminal courts, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The law says we cannot put a legal definition on Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, as it is personal for each person.

However, this is the highest standard used as the burden of proof and typically only applies in criminal proceedings. If there is a real doubt, based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence, or lack of evidence, in a case, then the level of proof has not been met.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, is proof of such a convincing character that one would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in the most important of one’s own affairs. However, it does not mean an absolute certainty. The standard that must be met by the prosecution’s evidence in a criminal prosecution is that 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 unless and until proven guilty.

The main reason that this high level of proof is demanded in criminal trials is that such proceedings can result in the deprivation of a defendant’s liberty or even in his or her death. These outcomes are far more severe than in civil trials, in which monetary damages are the common remedy.

It is important to note that “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is not beyond a shadow of a doubt. If someone knew 100% what happened in a criminal case, then they would likely be a witness in the case and therefore unable to sit as a juror.

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