If you have even been a party to a lawsuit or listened to a true crime podcast, you have probably heard the term burden of proof. But exactly what is the “burden of proof,” and how does it affect the outcome of a legal proceeding?
A burden of proof is a legal standard that the plaintiff (in civil cases) or prosecutor (in criminal cases) must satisfy to legally establish their case based on the evidence produced. The party who is initiating the claim must typically demonstrate that the claim is valid by meeting a certain burden of proof—which varies depending on the type of case presented.
In this post, the team at Gerash Steiner Blanton, P.C. will answer the question, What is the burden of proof? We will answer this question within various contexts to give you a deeper understanding of the concept. We will also prepare you to use this information to best participate in your claim or defense.
The Meaning of Burden of Proof
Having the burden of proof defined clearly helps ensure that legal decisions are made based on facts rather than feelings or conjecture. Knowing the definition of and the level of proof required to support a claim adds a level of fairness and certainty in legal proceedings for both claimants and their attorneys.
There are three levels of the burden of proof, and these levels determine the amount of evidence required for a successful claim. These levels of proof required for different types of claims include:
- A preponderance of the evidence,
- Clear and convincing evidence, and
- Evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Each of these levels of proof plays a unique role in the legal system. Depending upon the type of claim you plan to file or defend, you will want to understand the amount of evidence you may need to gather. To have the strongest claim or defense possible, regardless of whether your case is civil or criminal, understanding your burden of proof is the first step in gathering what you need.
Preponderance of the Evidence
Most civil lawsuits require plaintiffs to demonstrate to a fact-finder—be that a judge or jury—that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true. In other words, it is more likely than not that the claim the plaintiff is making is true.
This burden is used in civil cases, not criminal cases. Sometimes, judges and lawyers refer to this standard as “the greater weight of the evidence” since that is the hurdle you must overcome to fulfill this burden. Your goal here is to present enough evidence to show that the greater weight of that evidence supports your claim. This is the lowest burden of proof in law and is used in many civil cases.
Clear and Convincing Evidence
Clear and convincing evidence is a mid-level burden of proof. This standard also applies in certain civil cases where a high level of non-economic, monetary damages are at stake, but it is more rigorous to meet than the preponderance of the evidence standard. However, it is a less rigorous standard than the criminal standard of proving evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
This standard essentially means that the trier of fact must find that the evidence shows that the claim is highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue. You must present cogent, clear, convincing, and unequivocal evidence in support of your claim to meet this standard. At the end of the case, the fact-finder must have an abiding conviction that the truth of the facts asserted is highly probable.
This standard might be used if you petition a court to withdraw life support from your spouse. You would have to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that your desire to withdraw care was consistent with their wishes. The clear and convincing evidence standard might also be used if you were to challenge a trust or will or in cases of alleged fraud—among others.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
This is the highest burden of proof in our legal system. Such a high standard is required when the government attempts to criminally convict a citizen of a crime. In criminal cases, much more than money is at stake. The government could potentially take your freedom away for extended periods of time and saddle you with a criminal record for the rest of your life. With so much at stake, our constitution demands proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Proving something beyond a reasonable doubt means no reasonable explanation exists other than the one drawn by the prosecutor based on the evidence presented. To meet this high burden of proof, the jury must be virtually certain of the defendant’s guilt, and no reasonable person could reasonably disagree. The name, however, is a misnomer since “beyond a reasonable doubt” is not the same as having no doubt at all. Rather, it is the point where there are no reasonable alternatives.
Civil cases are meant to hold a defendant accountable and to pay the victim compensation. Whether a case must be brought according to a preponderance of the evidence or clear and convincing evidence standard depends on the claim and the type of proceeding.
As stated, the burden of proof is highest in criminal cases because criminal cases jeopardize a person’s freedom. In a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden of proof. Under most circumstances, the prosecutor must convince a judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charges brought against them. Whether the charge is larceny of a $3 sandwich or capital murder, prosecutors must still meet their burden of proof and demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.
Contact Gerash Steiner Blanton, P.C. Today
At Gerash Steiner Blanton, P.C., we have helped countless Coloradoans file, fight, and win lawsuits in courts across the state. While we are happy to negotiate on your behalf for a fair settlement, we also have decades of trial experience if negotiations do not work out. We will investigate your claim and zealously litigate for you. Contact us to schedule your case consultation.