Understanding the Different ‘Standards of Proof’ For Criminal Cases
When someone is brought into the United States Criminal Justice System, they’ve entered a world of legal jargon, statute interpretations, and court proceedings. For most people, with the exception of perhaps traffic cases, their first experience with the criminal just system is their first and their last. The whole process is time-consuming, financially burdensome and emotionally draining. The reason most people choose to hire, or have appointed, a Criminal Attorney is to help them navigate this difficult process. One of the things which will come into play in any criminal case, and which a good criminal attorney will explore, are the various levels of ‘Standards of Proof’ which the State must have at different times of your case. Below, this article will address the three main levels which are paramount for the State to ultimately achieve a conviction for a criminal offense.
First, ‘Standard of Proof refers to the level of proof the State must have to ‘act.’ This ‘act’ includes the stop, the arrest and ultimately the conviction. The ‘Proof’ is an evaluation of the facts and/or evidence and whether they meet the ‘standard’ set forth by statute and the Constitution, and interpreted by caselaw. Stated more clearly, the standard is set by the laws of the State, Federal Government and the Constitution. The interpretation of those laws as to how they apply to individual cases has been fleshed out through various prior cases where Defense Attorneys challenging some part of the States case. The ruling on those prior cases has set ‘precedent,’ or guidelines, as to how future Judges should handle similar challenges; this is known as ‘caselaw.’
The first Standard of Proof that must be met is ‘Reasonable Suspicion.’ This is the lowest standard the State is required to meet. This standard comes in when a Police Officer is deciding whether to stop and/or detain an individual on suspicion that they have committed a crime. Reasonable Suspicion is basically and reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. An Example might be two individuals in an area known for drug activity secretly exchanging something in their hands. An Officer observing this might believe it was a drug sale and has reasonable suspicion such that they can approach and temporarily detain the individuals to ascertain whether a crime is being committed. Though this is a low standard, it is not impossible to beat. Many cases have been won when a Defense Attorney successfully argued that the Officer did not have any reasonable suspicion to allow them to detain the Defendant.
The next Standard of Proof is ‘Probable Cause.’ A Police Officer must have Probable Cause in order to arrest an individual. Probable Cause is a belief that is more probable then not that they individual committed the crime for which they are being arrested. In the same drug exchange example from above, if one individual is found with drugs, and the other individual has cash, the Officer obviously has probable cause of the Defendant with the Drugs to arrest him for Drug Possession, but the Officer likely also has Probable Cause to arrest the Defendant with the cash for the Sale of Narcotics. This Standard is a stronger standard then reasonable suspicion, but it is still fairly low. The Officer can have doubts about his arrest, so long as he still feels it is still more probable then not that the crime was committed by the Defendant.
The last Standard of Proof is ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.’ Most everyone is familiar with this Standard from what they’ve heard about criminal trials. A Defendant cannot be convicted of a crime unless the State has proven their case ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ This is the highest standard the State must meet; and rightfully so as a conviction carries with it many consequences, so the State had better be absolutely sure in their convictions. In order to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, the State must have convinced the ‘trier of fact’ (which would be either a Judge or a Jury) that the Defendant is guilty of the crime they are charged with beyond any doubt which would be reasonable. A reasonable doubt in the drug exchange example might be that the Defendant with the Drugs had them the whole time and the other Defendant was just a friend who he was greeting with a hand shake. An unreasonable doubt in the same example might be that someone planted the drugs on the Defendant prior to the Officer observing him and without the knowledge of the Defendant.
As you can see, at each stage of a criminal conviction, the State must meet a higher standard of proof then the one before. Leading up to the highest standard before a Defendant can be convicted. Knowing the difference between these, and how they are applied may mean the difference between a conviction and a dismissal or a finding of not-guilty.
For information regarding your specific criminal case, speak with a local criminal defense attorney.