Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: What Does That Mean?

Written by Attorney Scott Patrick Brand of Brudvik Law Office, P.C.

Thanks to crime-related TV series, movies, and literature, most people know that in order to convict someone of a crime in the United States a jury must find that person guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." But many people are unsure about what exactly proof beyond a reasonable doubt means. I find the best way to understand that burden is by explaining some of the other burdens of proof in the United States. In criminal law, there are a variety of different burdens. Each one applies to different situations and each one carries a different weight. I will go through some of the burdens of proof in criminal law, explain what they mean, and hopefully provide insight into their relation to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion

The first major burden in criminal law is known as "reasonable and articulable suspicion." This is a relatively low burden of proof. In order for law enforcement to perform an investigative stop of an individual, they must have specific, articulable, and an individualized suspicion that crime is afoot.[1] The North Dakota Supreme Court has stated that "mere curiosity, suspicion, vague hunches, or other non-objective facts[2]" do not meet the reasonable and articulable suspicion burden. In other words, law enforcement must act on something more than a "mere hunch" if they want to stop someone. This burden of proof is only enough to initiate a stop of an individual, and is not enough to initiate an arrest or to convict someone of a crime.

Probable Cause

A slightly higher burden, known as "Probable Cause," is the burden of proof that is used to determine whether the search of an individual or an arrest of an individual is appropriate. This is also the burden used when a judge must decide whether to issue a search warrant.[1] The United States Supreme Court has stated that Probable Cause is "more than bare suspicion."[2] The Court has also stated Probable Cause exists when the facts and circumstances are sufficient in themselves to warrant someone of reasonable caution to believe that an offense has been or is being committed.[3] Although there may be enough evidence to meet a Probable Cause standard that allows for the arrest of a person, it is not enough to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt.

Preponderance of the Evidence

Another burden, which is often used to determine whether an individual violated the conditions of his/her probation[4], is known as the "Preponderance of the Evidence" standard. This standard is also used sometimes as the burden put upon a defendant to show an affirmative defense for certain crimes.[5] A legal dictionary defines Preponderance of the Evidence like this: "[T]hough not sufficient to free the mind wholly from all reasonable doubt, is still sufficient to incline a fair and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than the other. Essentially this standard is satisfied if the party can show that something is more likely than not to have happened."[6] I like to break down a Preponderance of the Evidence Standard like this: there must be a greater than 50% chance that the disputed fact is true in order to win. If a jury in a criminal trial thinks there is a greater than 50% chance that a crime was committed, but still has reasonable doubts, then that jury must return a verdict of "Not Guilty."

Clear and Convincing Evidence

The highest burden of proof before getting to Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, is known as "Clear and Convincing Evidence." The Clear and Convincing Evidence standard is used in mental health proceedings to determine whether an individual should be civilly committed because he/she is a sexually dangerous individual. In order to meet the clear and convincing evidence standard, a party must provide a "firm belief or conviction that the allegations are true."[7] Although this burden is high, it is not as high as beyond a reasonable doubt.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Now we have come to the standard that the Government must fulfill in order for a jury to find an accused citizen of being guilty: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Although many of the burdens discussed above provide us with actual definitions, we do not have such a luxury with the Beyond a Reasonable Doubt standard. In fact, the North Dakota Supreme Court "has long recognized the difficulty in defining reasonable doubt and has neither required nor prohibited such a definition."[8] The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers federal appeals from North Dakota and six other states, describes Beyond a Reasonable Doubt like this: "'[R]easonable doubt' is a doubt based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence received in [a] trial. It is the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, must be proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it."[9]

Keeping that description in the back of your mind, let's put our understanding of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt against some of the other burdens to understand how convinced a jury must be to find someone guilty. A jury certainly cannot convict on a hunch; cannot convict if they think it is probable that someone committed the charged offense; cannot convict if they only think it is more likely than not that someone committed a crime; and cannot convict even if they think it is highly probable that someone committed the charged offense, but still has reasonable doubt. A jury can only convict if they have NO reasonable doubt in their minds that someone committed the charged offense. This does not mean that the government needs to prove its case beyond all possible doubt, but when compared to the burdens articulated above, the government has a heavy burden to carry when asking a jury to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.[10]

I hope this helped shed light on the concept of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. If you are put in the unfortunate position of facing a criminal charges, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Contact us online or at 701-786-6177 to discuss your options to ensure that your Constitutional Rights are protected.

[1] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[2] Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175 (1949).

[3] Id.

[4] State v. Causer, 2004 ND 75, ¶ 29, 678 N.W.2d 552.

[5] State v. Pfister, 264 N.W.2d 694, 699 (N.D. 1978).

[6] Black's Law Dictionary 1373 (10th ed. 2014).

[7] In re Corman, 2014 ND 88, ¶ 7, 845 N.W.2d 335.

[8] State v. Schneider, 550 N.W.2d 405, 408 (N.D. 1996).

[9] Manual of Model Criminal Jury Instructions for the District Courts of the Eighth Circuit, No. 12.02 (2014).

[10] State v. Blunt, 2010 ND 144, ¶¶ 22-26, 78 N.W.2d 909.

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