The Burden of Proof in Criminal and Civil Cases

Crimes have consequences. However, those consequences aren’t just limited to time behind bars and fines. It’s also possible to face non-criminal consequences if your actions caused another person to get hurt. That person may have the right to file a personal injury lawsuit against you to recover compensation, something that would require a personal injury attorney.

There’s nothing that says you can’t be charged with a crime and be sued at the same time. Even though they may involve the same action or behavior, criminal and civil cases are separate and distinct. It’s very possible that you could win one case and lose the other. This happens frequently, often because the burden of proof in criminal and civil cases is different.

Burden of Proof in Criminal & Civil Cases

When you’re charged with a crime or named as a defendant in a personal injury lawsuit, the other party has what is known as a burden of proof. The burden of proof is basically an obligation to prove what’s being alleged in the case. A legal case – criminal or civil – cannot be successful if the burden of proof isn’t satisfied.

How is a burden of proof met? The answer depends on whether the case is criminal or civil in nature.

Criminal Cases: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The burden of proof in criminal cases is beyond a reasonable doubt. You cannot be convicted by a judge or jury if there is reasonable uncertainty that you’re guilty of the crime. Surprisingly, there’s no hard-and-fast definition or instruction for what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means.

Whether or not reasonable doubt exists will ultimately depend on how a judge or jury views a particular case. The decision should be based on “reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all evidence” in a case. Some courts explain that beyond a reasonable doubt means that there is “proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it.”

This is an incredibly high burden of proof. As a result, the best way to defend yourself when you’re accused of a crime is by asserting a very strong defense. Any legitimate doubt can prevent the state from satisfying its burden of proof.

Example: Let’s say that you’re charged in connection with a robbery. The state’s case relies heavily on eye-witness testimony. During cross-examination, your attorney is able to poke many holes in the witness’s testimony and put his credibility into question. In fact, your attorney even gets the witness to admit that they’re not 100 percent sure that you are the person they saw robbing the store. Here, there’s a legitimate chance that you may have been misidentified by the witness. A jury could have reasonable doubt as to your guilt.

Civil Cases: Preponderance of the Evidence

The burden of proof in civil lawsuits – including personal injury cases – is by a preponderance of the evidence. Preponderance of the evidence means that it’s more likely that something is true than untrue. A victim in a personal injury lawsuit only has to convince a judge or jury that there’s a “greater than 50 percent chance” that their claim is true.

It’s the quality of the evidence, rather than the quantity, that will be important when determining if there is a preponderance of the evidence.

Example: You’re named as the defendant in a personal injury lawsuit after a recent car accident. The victim has some, but not a lot, of evidence to support the argument that you are responsible for her injuries. However, the evidence she does have is quite persuasive, including an expert’s virtual recreation of the incident. You don’t have much to offer in your own defense. A jury finds that, based on the victim’s evidence, it’s more likely than not that you caused her injuries.

Why Are the Burdens Different?

Why is the burden of proof for criminal cases so much higher than that for civil cases? The answer ultimately boils down to the fact that criminal and civil cases are attempting to do very different things. A criminal case involves an alleged violation of the law, while civil cases involve disputes between two private parties.

There’s a Lot at Stake in Criminal Cases

There’s a lot at stake when you’re accused of the crime. A conviction can result in jail time, substantial fines, and burden you with a criminal record for (potentially) the rest of your life. The law is designed to make sure that you are only convicted if a judge or jury is almost certain that you are guilty. There’s very little room for error. This is intentional and intended to protect the innocent. The state has to put together a strong case to prove that you’re guilty.

Civil Cases Aim to Resolve a Dispute

Civil cases are disputes between two (or more) parties. The defendant and the plaintiff are treated as equals. As a result, the party that ultimately wins will be the one that presents the most compelling case.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot at stake in civil cases. However, the defendant’s future and freedom aren’t in jeopardy. At the same time, the plaintiff may have suffered serious injuries and really need financial assistance. Requiring a plaintiff to present evidence that shows his or her claim is more likely true than not is seen as a fair solution.

Have you been arrested for a crime in San Diego? The state has to prove that you’re guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A strong defense can make this very difficult. Our criminal defense attorneys can help you put forward the best defense possible. Call today to learn more.