The phrase “presumption of innocence” has come across my social media feed quite a bit lately, and like many legal phrases which come across my social media feed from time to time, the lay understanding of the phrase, and its technical legal meaning diverge in some subtle, but important ways.
It may surprise some of you do discover that the phrase “presumption of innocence” does not exist anywhere in the Constitution. (And no, hair splitters, it doesn’t exist in any variation anywhere in there, in the body of the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, or any of the Amendments.) And yet, it is still a constitutional right.
How is that?
It was first spelled out and definitively identified in Coffin v. United States,156 U.S. 432 (1895). In that case, a criminal bank fraud case, the Court explained “reasonable doubt” to the jury, but didn’t explain the presumption of innocence. The Supreme Court then said, “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” The Court then goes on to a history lesson about where that comes from, quoting Deuteronomy and the laws of Sparta and Athens and ancient Rome, among other historical sources.
The presumption of innocence is tied up and connected with, though not entirely equivalent to, the benefit of reasonable doubt. The theory is that, as criminal convictions go, it is better to let guilty men (and women) go free than to convict innocent people.
It’s interesting, however, that this presumption of innocence simply doesn’t exist in the non-criminal arena. In a criminal trial, you have to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – in a civil trial, there only has to be a preponderance of evidence. A preponderance of evidence means that there has to be slightly more evidence on the “you did it” side than on the “you didn’t do it” side. That’s why, for example, you can be acquitted on a criminal charge of murder, but then be held responsible for damages in a wrongful death civil trial down the road. (That’s what happened with O.J.)
Of course, all of this is very subtle and nuanced, and worthy of far more analysis and examination than this short article. However, to sum up:
- The presumption of innocence is not specifically listed in the Constitution; but
- Is universally held to be a constitutional right; and
- Only applies to criminal trials.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.