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Published on 11/13/2022, 1:34:00 PM

What is the Burden of Proof in a Criminal Case?

Court housePursuant to the United States Constitution, a defendant who has been formally charged with a crime is presumed innocent until he or she is proven guilty. To prove that a defendant is guilty of a crime, the prosecution in a criminal case must meet what is called the burden of proof in the case.

In criminal cases, the burden is on the prosecution to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The beyond a reasonable doubt standard is the highest burden of proof in the legal system. In this article, we discuss the burden of proof in a criminal case.

What is a Burden of Proof?

In the criminal context, a burden of proof is a legal standard that requires the parties involved to prove that a criminal charge is either justified or not justified. To succeed in either proving or disproving a claim, a party in a criminal case must meet the applicable burden of proof. As noted above, the burden of proof in a criminal case is the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

Who must they prove it to?

The prosecution must prove their case to a Judge or a Jury, depending on who is the fact finder in the case.

In Maryland there are both Judge and Jury trials for criminal offenses. If a person is charged with a crime in the District Court, they will have a Judge trial.

Should a person choose to take their case to a jury trial instead of a Judge trial, first they must file a jury trial prayer.

If a person's case is a felony outside the jurisdiction of the District Court, their case may have been filed by indictment in the Circuit Court. In Maryland's Circuit Court, a case is decided by a jury, no jury trial prayer is required.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Court houseThe beyond a reasonable doubt standard is the highest burden of proof required of a party in a legal case. The United States Constitution requires the government to meet this standard to prove that a defendant is guilty of a crime.

Although courts throughout the years have debated the extent to which the prosecution in a criminal case must prove its case to meet this standard, it's clear that it is not enough for the court to simply believe that a defendant is guilty.

Instead, the evidence presented by the prosecution must be so convincing that a reasonable person would not question the guilt of the defendant. In other words, this standard requires that the evidence offer no logical conclusion or explanation other than that the defendant is guilty of the crime accused.

Courts have described this degree of confidence in a criminal verdict as a moral certainty.

What is reasonable doubt defined as in Court

According to the Maryland Pattern Jury instructions, Juries are instructed that a reasonable doubt is defined as:

A reasonable doubt is a doubt founded upon reason. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires such proof as would convince you of the truth of a fact to the extent that you would be willing to act upon such belief without reservation in an important matter in your own business or personal affairs. If you are not satisfied of the defendant's guilt to that extent for each and every element of a crime charged, then reasonable doubt exists and the defendant must be found not guilty of that crime.

Reasonable doubt vs All doubts

What the beyond a reasonable standard does not mean, however, is that the prosecution in a criminal case must eliminate all unreasonable doubts that a jury may have.

And the prosecution also is not required to prove its case to an absolute certainty or beyond a shadow of a doubt. The reason for this is that these high burdens would be impossible to meet, and this would vastly interfere with the ability of states to prosecute crimes.

Rather, the beyond a reasonable doubt standard requires, following careful consideration of the facts of the case, that the only logical conclusion in the case is that the defendant is guilty. Otherwise, the prosecution will fail to meet its burden, and the defendant will be found innocent.

Affirmative Defenses and the Burden of Proof

Court houseA criminal defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence. Rather, it is the responsibility of the prosecution to prove each individual element of the crime with which the defendant has been charged beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, in cases in which the defendant asserts an affirmative defense, such as mistaken identity, insanity, or self-defense, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant.

When a defendant argues an affirmative defense, he or she is required to meet the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof, which is a much lower standard than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

Subsequently, the burden reverts back to the prosecution, who then must disprove the defendant's affirmative defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

Other Standards of Proof in Criminal Cases

Although the beyond a reasonable doubt standard is used during the trial phase of criminal proceedings, additional standards are applicable at other stages of a criminal proceeding.

Other standards of proof in criminal cases include:

Reasonable suspicion:

The reasonable suspicion standard applies when determining whether a search by law enforcement leading to an arrest was lawful. A law enforcement officer is required to be able to objectively justify his or her suspicion that a defendant is involved in criminal activity before stopping and searching him or her.

When a law enforcement officer searches a person or vehicle, the officer must either have a search warrant, probable cause to conduct the search, or fit another exception to the warrantless search requirement.

Probable cause:

Probable cause is a higher legal standard than reasonable suspicion. This standard requires a law enforcement officer to have an objectively reasonable basis to take certain actions.

The probable cause requirement is found in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and police must meet this standard before making an arrest, conducting a search, or receiving a warrant.

Courts often find that probable cause exists when a police officer has a reasonable basis for believing that a person may have committed a crime (for an arrest) or when evidence of the crime exists in the area to be searched (for a search). Maryland preliminary hearings use this standard to evaluate felony charges.

Preponderance of the evidence:

A defendant in a criminal case does not ordinarily have the burden of proof when putting on a defense. However, as noted above, when the defendant in a criminal case asserts an affirmative defense, then he or she must prove the elements of the defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

In most cases, a defendant satisfies the preponderance of the evidence standard when he or she demonstrates that the affirmative defense raised is more likely than not to be true. We often call this generating the defense

Shifting the Burden of Proof

Court house The prosecution in a criminal case may establish a fact that proves an element of the crime with which the defendant is accused. When this happens, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant.

However, it is not necessary for the defendant to disprove this fact. Instead, the defendant must raise doubts about the fact. A defendant is not required to raise doubts about every fact the prosecutor asserts.

Rather, simply creating sufficient doubt regarding the important points in the case is enough. In many cases, the reasonable doubt deals with only one element of a crime. The State must prove EACH element of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt! However, the more convincing the prosecution is, the higher the burden is on the defendant.

For example, if the prosecution in a criminal matter asserts that law enforcement located an item on a criminal defendant that was reported stolen, the defendant would need to provide a reasonable explanation to the court regarding how he or she acquired the item.

If the defendant could present a receipt proving that the item was a gift, then the burden of proof would shift back to the prosecution. Or, the Defendant could testify they would not have otherwise known the item was stolen.

Contact a Maryland Criminal Defense Lawyer:

If you are facing criminal charges in Maryland, you need you need a knowledgeable and aggressive criminal defense lawyer on your side. At FrizWoods, we focus our practice solely on the defense of criminal defendants.

Attorneys Luke Woods and Max Frizalone believe that every criminal defendant deserves justice, and they have long track records of obtaining results for their clients.

When you come to us for help with your criminal case, attorneys Woods and Frizalone will utilize their vast criminal law experience to provide you with the strongest defense possible in your Maryland criminal case.

So, if you are ready to fight back against your criminal charges and begin planning your defense, please contact us as soon as possible to schedule a free initial consultation.