When it comes to the burden of proof in a courtroom, two important questions arise: What is the burden of proof, and who has it?
In criminal cases the burden of proof is always on the prosecutor since the accused has a constitutional right to remain silent; the accused has no obligation to come forward with evidence of innocence. Following a criminal arrest, a “preliminary hearing” is typically held where the defendant is made aware of the charges and the prosecutor presents evidence before a local magistrate. At this stage the burden of proof is low – – all the prosecutor needs to show is that it is more than likely that a crime was committed and that the defendant was likely involved with the commission of the crime. Stated differently, the prosecutor must show enough evidence of criminal involvement to make it reasonable for the defendant to stand trial.
Unlike a preliminary hearing, in a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove each element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a much higher burden, usually requiring the prosecution to show that there is no other possible logical conclusion except that the defendant committed the crime charged. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” does not mean beyond any doubt. If a jury acquits a defendant based on doubt about guilt, that doubt must be reasonable and logically founded.
In civil cases, the Plaintiff generally has the burden of proof as to all elements to establish the defendant’s liability, while the defendant has the burden of proof to establish any defenses to liability. For example, in a car accident case involving a red light violation, the plaintiff would have to show that the defendant was negligent by ignoring a red traffic signal and causing the accident. The defendant might try to defend by showing that the traffic signal was not operating properly. This “defense” would be the defendant’s burden to prove.
Unlike criminal cases where the “reasonable doubt” standard prevails, in civil cases, the parties must prove their points by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This simply means that the Plaintiff must show that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable on the claim. This is sometimes referred to as the “51/49 standard.” If the scales of justice tip slightly for one party or the other, that party prevails. (As an aside, in my experience in the civil courtroom, juries usually go with their “gut” feeling — meaning that they tend to pick a “winner” without much regard for legal niceties. If the jury is sympathetic to a party, that party usually wins!)
– Kevin Palmer