With all of the recent national media attention to the jury verdict in the George Zimmerman case, I, and The Wagner Law Firm, thought it prudent to remind, or in some cases teach, our DUINewsBlog.org readership what the actual burden of proof is in a criminal case in a United States courtroom, what it means and the burden therein our government bares in proving their case.
The burden of proof the government bares in a criminal case is called, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” This burden is the highest burden of proof required in our legal system in America.
Prior to discussing proof beyond a reasonable doubt in greater detail however, let us first refresh on the various levels of proof in our legal system in this country prior to getting up to the highest level in our legal system in America. Thus, let us start at the beginning and work our way up to beyond a reasonable doubt.
The first level is what we call “reasonable articulable suspicion.” This is where a law enforcement officer need only have an articulable suspicion that a crime has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed, in order to approach / “seize” a citizen from freedom of movement while said officer inquires or investigates his suspicion. Examples of this would be an officer pulling over a vehicle at nighttime due to one the headlights being out, or an officer approaching a citizen on the street who he or she believes just engaged in a drug transaction.
The next level up from reasonable articulable suspicion is “probable cause.” This is the level required for an actual arrest to be made or a charge to be issued by a prosecuting authority. Probable cause to believe ‘x’ crime was committed. From the example above, let’s say after stopping the vehicle for the headlight being out, the officer notices evidence of intoxication via the driver of the vehicle and from there arrests said citizen for DUI. The burden of proof necessary to do so at this stage is called probable cause to believe this crime has occurred, i.e. DUI.
The next level up the scale of proof is called “preponderance of the evidence.” This is the level of proof necessary for you to sue your doctor for negligence or Wal-Mart for slipping on the banana peel in isle 3 and severely injuring your back type thing. In short, this level of proof is the level required in all civil law suits or civil administrative hearings, such as license administrative hearings on a DUI case.
The next level up the scale of proof is called “clear and convincing evidence.” This is the type of proof required to take a child out of its mother’s arms. This burden of proof is most often seen in situations where the State is attempting to remove a child from the parents home and place in State care due to harm, potential harm or unfitness of parent(s). It is a very high burden to meet as you could imagine.
Which now brings us back to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest burden of proof in our legal system in America. The real essence of what this burden means is that if a juror (or judge), having listened to the entire case, the facts as alleged, the evidence as introduced and the laws/instructions governing, says to his/herself, “is it reasonable possible that ‘x’ crime did not occur the way the State is arguing?”, “..just reasonable possible?”, then I must vote not guilty by law.
Meaning, if after weighing all the evidence a juror believes that it is possible, just reasonably possible, that the accused citizen did not commit “x’ crime, then the juror must vote not guilty. Reminding all that not guilty does not mean innocent, it simply means that you the juror believes that the government did not prove their case to the exclusion of all reasonable doubt. This burden is not met with a “maybe”, or a “probably”, or a “highly likely”, or even that of a “clear and convincing” type mindset. To find a citizen guilty of a crime in an American court of law, and subject him or her to the loss of their very freedom, a juror does so only upon the highest level of evidence and one where there simply is not even a reasonable possibility the crime did not happen the way the government argues and that it is not even reasonably possible the accused citizen is not guilty.
This is the same blanket that wraps each and every American citizen accused of a crime in a United States courtroom.
So, while we may well disagree with a jury verdict in any one criminal case, let us please never forget the immense importance and meaning of, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Harley O. Wagner, Esq.
The Wagner Law Firm
West Virginia’s Premier DUI Defense Firm