The Burden of Proof

burden-1296754_960_720The Burden of Proof has held a prominent place in the zeitgeist over the past couple of weeks.  With Senators and pundits arguing over what burden of proof Justice Kavanaugh should be afforded, to the case of People v. Jason Van Dyke playing out live on the internet for the world to see, discussion over the burden of proof has been front and center.  Without commenting on the substance of Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and without commenting on the outcome of the Van Dyke trial, we here at LauraLaw thought that these past few weeks created a great opportunity to talk about the burden of proof – what is it?  How does it work?  When does it apply?

The Burden of Proof Generally

Every legal case has a burden of proof.  The burden of proof determines which party is responsible for providing the evidence to prove their case.  Almost every case applies the burden of proof to the “moving party” – or, the party that brings the case to court.  In civil cases, the moving party is the Plaintiff, and in criminal cases, the moving party is the Government.  At certain stages of the case, before trial, the “moving party” can be the defendant, and at that stage, the defendant will bear the burden of proof.  For example, if a criminal defendant files a Motion to Suppress evidence, he has the burden to prove that the officer did not act within the boundaries of the Constitution.  At trial, however, the “moving party” is the Plaintiff (civil) or the Government (criminal).

Evidentiary Standards applied to the Burden of Proof

While the moving party is the party that bears the burden of proof, the nature of the proceedings determines which evidentiary standard is applied to the burden of proof.  The “evidentiary standard” is the degree of certainty that is required for the moving party to carry their burden of proof.  In other words, the evidentiary standard dictates how certain the deciding body (judge, jury, etc.) must be that the moving party proved the elements of their claim.

In criminal cases, the government has the highest burden of proof in any case – Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.  The standard of Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is so axiomatic in criminal cases that it is codified in the Illinois Criminal Code under 720 ILCS 5/3-1, is explicitly named by the Illinois Supreme Court (see People v. Weinstein, 35 Ill. 2d 467 (1966)), and explicitly held by the Supreme Court of the United States in In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970).  While the court will not define “Reasonable Doubt” for a jury, the concept is stated to mean “such doubt as would give rise to a grave uncertainty, raised in your mind by reasons of the unsatisfactory character of the evidence or lack thereof . . . .  What is required is not an absolute or mathematical certainty, but a moral certainty.”  Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1 (1994).  A criminal defendant is presumed to be innocent until the Government proves each and every element of their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and only upon meeting that burden of proof can someone be considered guilty of a crime in the court of law.  Such a high burden of proof exists in criminal cases because such cases infringe upon a person’s rights to liberty and those liberty rights are sacred.

In civil cases, the moving party generally bears the lowest burden of proof – Proof by a Preponderance of the Evidence.  Proof by a Preponderance of the Evidence has been defined as “more likely than not.”  In other words, if a plaintiff sues a defendant for damages arising out of a car accident, it is up to the plaintiff to provide enough evidence to make the jury think it is more likely that the defendant caused the injuries than not.  The lower burden applies in civil cases (and elsewhere) because civil cases generally do not jeopardize a person’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.  While a person’s life is at stake in a criminal case, it is usually money that is at stake in a civil case.

Some civil cases carry a burden of proof that lies somewhere between Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Proof by a Preponderance of the Evidence – Proof by Clear and Convincing Evidence.  Proof by Clear and Convincing Evidence requires not only proof that the fact is “more likely than not,” but proof that the fact is “substantially more likely than not.”  Such a standard is not as stringent as proof beyond a reasonable doubt but rises above the preponderance of the evidence burden.

Burden of Proof Outside the Court of Law

In proceedings outside the court of law, the burden of proof is not controlled by the criminal or civil case law discussed above.  Instead, the burden of proof is set by the body that is requesting proof.  For example, if you are applying for a job, it is incumbent upon your employer to weigh any bad facts about you against any good facts about you and give each category however much weight he or she wants.  Such facts need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt as a matter of law.  Likewise, the “court of public opinion” tends to hold people to a much lower burden of proof than the courts do – often requiring nothing more than their opinion to evaluate claims against another person.

Burden of Proof in Our Practice

Whatever the venue or whatever the circumstances, we always believe it is best practice to know our audience.  Part of knowing our audience is knowing our burden of proof if any.  After determining that burden of proof, we can effectively create a strategy of presenting evidence to meet that burden of proof.  Whether we’re representing a criminal defendant in court, where the prosecutor is required to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or a professional in an administrative procedure, we value preparation so we know the hurdles we must clear before we move forward.

If you should find yourself facing a burden of proof – in criminal court or an administrative hearing – do not hesitate to contact us here at LauraLaw, and we will be happy to represent you in your journey toward meeting that burden.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *