Legalese — Standards of Proof

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Judging (no pun intended) from some of the conversations I’ve had with friends lately, the difference between the standards of proof between civil and criminal trials is something that is confusing to people who don’t deal with those things on a daily basis.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.”  That is the standard of proof in a criminal trial.  When someone is charged with a crime, the state (or the federal government, or the city, or whatever governmental agency is charging the person with the crime – only the government in the United States can charge someone with an actual crime) has to prove that the person did the act they are accused of doing beyond a reasonable doubt.

What does that mean exactly?  Sometimes that phrase gets confused with “Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt.”  That phrase, while poetic and dramatic, isn’t really a ‘thing’ in the legal world.  Reasonable doubt means that you can actually have some doubt, so long as it is unreasonable.  Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle.  You don’t have to put all 1,000 pieces together before you can be sure that it is a picture of a monkey eating a banana.  If you don’t have all the pieces in the monkey’s face, you can still be reasonably sure that it is a monkey from the context clues in the picture.  Sure, it is possible that once you put the rest of the pieces in the face will turn out to be that of your third grade gym teacher, but it is highly unlikely and not particularly reasonable.  That’s how it is with criminal trials.  There might be missing pieces of evidence, but so long as the missing pieces aren’t critical ones, or so long as you can be reasonably certain of what happened, there can still be a conviction.

Civil cases, which are cases brought by ‘regular folks’ and not criminal cases, have a different standard of proof.  Usually, that is a preponderance of the evidence.  That is a completely different thing.  You can have a whole lot of doubt and still win a case by a preponderance of the evidence.

Think of a set of balance scales or a teeter-totter.  Think of it completely in balance.  You have enough sand or water or whatever so that it is completely level.  Then you put one drop of water or one grain of sand on one side.  That’s enough to make it tip.  That’s what a preponderance of the evidence is.  That’s enough to win in a civil trial – just more evidence, even a tiny bit more, on one side.

That’s why you sometimes get weird, seemingly conflicting outcomes in court cases.  Someone might be charged with the criminal version of an offense like, say, murder, and the jury will say that there was not enough evidence to find that the person was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This is not the same thing as being found innocent or being absolved of the charges.  The jury may very well have thought that the person did it, there may just have been enough doubt that had reason behind it not to convict.  Then, that same person gets sued for the civil version of the same thing, like wrongful death.  Since you need a whole lot less evidence to win in a civil trial, it might be a whole lot easier to win that way.  So you’d get a jury who gives the plaintiff a whole lot of money in the wrongful death trial even though there was a “not guilty” verdict in the criminal trial.  Those things are entirely consistent even though it might not seem that way.

That’s why it is a whole lot more than semantics when you say that “not guilty” isn’t the same as “innocent.”  It isn’t.  Not by a long shot.  You can be a long way from innocent and still be rightfully found “not guilty.”  Hundreds of years ago our founding fathers decided that it should be hard to convict someone criminally.  There should be an awful lot of evidence because the stakes are so high.  They decided that it was better to let a few guilty people go free than to let any innocent people get convicted.  It may or may not actually work that way all the time, but that’s the ideal and the theory behind it, anyway.


Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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