I am sure you have heard this phrase before. Whether it be in books, movies, t.v. shows, or in real life, it is a well known phrase. However, I find that in the real, actual courtroom context many people don’t know what it really means.

Simply stated the burden of proof is a burden that the agency charging someone with a crime must carry in order to convict that person of a crime. For example, in Seattle Municipal Court it is the prosecutors that work for the City of Seattle who have this burden when they file charges against a person. If it is a felony case in King County, then it is the prosecutors who work for the State of Washington in King County who have this burden.

Criminal Prosecutions Have the Highest Burden

In criminal prosecutions this burden is very high.  It is designed to be extremely high because if a people are convicted of crimes they can get sent to jail and lose their freedom.  This is not something that the legislature, the lawmakers, and the courts take lightly.  And they shouldn’t.  Therefore in order to convict a person of a crime a jury (or a judge in a bench trial) must find that the person charged with the crime actually committed the crime and that they believe this “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In theory (and I am speaking theory here because I am not going to get into the particulars of how it actually plays out in real life . . . that is a WHOLE other story) this means that even if there is one juror on the jury panel that believes there is a single doubt in their minds that is “reasonable” then that jury cannot convict the defendant.  Along with various instructions from the judge in the case as to what this phrase actually means, they are instructed that if this burden is not met in their minds that they are to return a verdict of not guilty.

Juries, trials, and the whole criminal justice process itself surely does not always work as they should or as we would hope, but the intention and idea that goes with this burden is to ensure fairness.  Most importantly it is to ensure that if someone’s rights and freedoms are going to be taken away from them it is only after the prosecuting agency has met this extremely high threshold.

Other Levels of Burden of Proof

In other types of legal proceedings, such as dependency matters (involving children and custody rights), civil lawsuits for money damages, and even Department of Licensing Hearings that accompany certain criminal charges (DUI’s for example) the burden of proof is much lower.  The burden that must be carried by the party trying to accomplish their end in a case is called “by a preponderance of the evidence.”

This term is basically a way of saying that if something is “more likely than not” to have happened then a trier of fact (jury, judge, hearing officer, etc.) can find that it happened.  It is a much lower standard because a person cannot get sent to jail or prison as a consequence of one of those types of cases.

Again, please take this explanation of this phrase for what it is; an attempt to shed some basic light on what these burdens are supposed to accomplish.  This is by no means as simple as it sounds when it comes to actually litigating criminal and civil cases.

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Stryder J. Wegener is the author of this article, the co-founder of Emerald City Law Group, and a damn good criminal defense attorney.