ofThe outcome of a trial, whether it be civil or criminal, can have a tremendous impact on the lives of the parties involved. It is the wish of any reasonable person that the perpetrator of an evil faces the penalties of his or her actions while the innocent be awarded a favorable outcome, whatever that entails. This is the outcome that any honest legal decision-marker strives to achieve. If the all the relevant facts were readily available and their authenticity assured, then a judge or jury could confidently reach a verdict knowing that the outcome is consistent with the actual events that took place. This is not to imply that knowing the facts assures a just ruling, but only that no confusion exists as to what actually took place and therefore the verdict reflects what actually took place. In a great number of cases the choice between innocence and guilt is not clear cut, yet a decision must be reached nevertheless. It is often the case that the trier must make a decision based upon an incomplete and unsatisfactory picture of events. The judge must also acknowledge the possibility that the plaintiff or defendant is lying in order to have his or her way. How does a judge reach a verdict when there is no way he can know, based on the facts, who is guilty and who is innocent? These are questions of tremendous importance. The answer to these questions has a deep impact in the shaping of our society. Questions regarding the presumptions of innocence, the standards of proof and who is to carry the burden of proof will be addressed. Emphasis will be place upon cases in which the rules we are about to discuss are overturned by some other principle.
The question regarding the sufficiency of evidence needed to convince a decisionmaker in a court case that the charges being pressed are indeed valid is a question relating to the standard of proof. The standard of proof is a set of guidelines as to how much evidence the plaintiff or prosecutor must present in order to receive a favorable verdict. What constitutes the standard of proof is a crucial area in which the two branches of the legal system differ. In criminal law the standard of proof is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas in civil cases the standard is a preponderance of evidence or in some rarer cases Clear and convincing evidence.
The criminal standard of proof is very strict and it is often difficult to get a conviction under this standard even with solid and convincing evidence. As a result of this strict standard, the guilty often go unpunished because the prosecution is unable convince the trier that the evidence meets this standard. At the same time, an immoral person with a personal vendetta in mind who falsely accuses someone of a crime would have a very hard time getting a conviction. This strict burden of proof says a great deal about the importance we place on liberty. Our constitution makes it clear that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the ideals of the highest importance. Sending someone to prison denies a person his/her liberty and therefore deprives this individual of this ideal. The standard of proof in a criminal court seems to reflect this by making it very difficult for this right to be taken away. Usually the higher the stakes (longer prison term, death penalty) the greater the standard of proof.
The civil standard of proof is more a standard of percentages. If greater than 50% of the evidence leads to a particular verdict, then in theory it is enough for a conviction. A conviction in a civil court is based on a less rigorous set of criteria than one in a criminal court. Often a party is able to show that the requirements for a civil conviction are met but is unable to convince the trier of fact that the beyond a reasonable doubt standard is met. A famous example of a court case in which the defendant received a verdict of not guilty in a criminal case but then, subsequently in the civil trial, was deemed guilty is the renown O.J Simpson trial. Police charged O.J Simpson with the murder of his wife. Evidence seemed to lead to this same conclusion although there was a small amount of evidence that did not fit. A second less known standard of proof is the clear and convincing evidence standard. According to this standard a party must show that something is more likely than not, but not as much as beyond a reasonable doubt. If it doesnt sound very concrete it is because it is not. Legal scholars have had a very hard time interpreting this particular standard. Probably the best way to think of this is that the standard of proof lies somewhere between a preponderance of evidence and evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. This said, it is only rarely applied. It is most often employed in cases where the potential loss is a very important interest like the loss of a child or a juvenile court conviction. Five states currently require the clear and convincing standard to be met in juvenile court.
Despite the well-established concept of the standard of proof there is still remains unanswered the question regarding who gets the benefit of the doubt in a trial. Since virtually every trial has an outcome, whether there is evidence or not, is there an established doctrine as to who wins in the case that the standard of proof is not met? The answer is yes. Presumptions are set notions or ideas that in the absence of proof to the contrary, are deemed to be true. In criminal trials the famous, innocent until proven guilty, presumption applies. A similar presumption also applies to civil courts. In other words, the charges on the defendant are dropped unless the trier is convinced otherwise. Presumptions are also significant in statutory interpretation and constitutional law. One of the most famous presumptions of all times as it relates to constitutional law is the carolene products decision. To quote for this opinion
the existence of facts supporting the legislative judgement is to be presumed, for regulatory legislation affecting ordinary commercial transactions is not to be pronounced unconstitutional unless in the light of the facts made know or generally assumed it is of such a character as to preclude the assumption that it rests upon some rational basis within the knowledge and experience of the legislators
In a footnote to this statement the judge adds, There may be a narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be directed at particular religious, national, or racial minoritiesprejudice against discrete or insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends to seriously curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry. In other words, the court will presume that legislative law is constitutional unless it is directed at minorities, in which case, judges become suspicious and require legislators to produce evidence to the contrary. If legislators fail to do so the law will b deemed unconstitutional.
Another important point, which is difficult to separate from the concept of presumption, is that of burden of proof. Whoever has the burden of proof has the task of convincing the decision-maker in a trial that the party’s version of the facts is true. The question of who has the burden of proof is usually implied by the presumption used by that court. The burden of proof is a crucial element in a trial because if the party with the burden fails to meet the standard of proof, then judgement goes to the opposing side. In the vast majority of cases the burden rests with the plaintiff or persecutor. However some notable exception exist.
One of the most notable exceptions to the standard presumption on who has the burden of proof arises in civil court. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur places the burden of proof on the defendant in cases of negligence. Res ipsa loquitur may be invoked only when all of the three of the following conditions are met: (a) the thing that caused the accident was under the defendant’s control, (b) the accident could happen only as a result of a careless act and, (c) the plaintiff’s behavior did not contribute to the accident. The evolution of this doctrine dates back to the 1863, when in the Court of Exchequer the Byrne v. Boadle decision was argued. In this case the plaintiff was walking down the street when from a window above, a barrel of flour rolled out the window and struck the plaintiff. The defendant was a dealer in flour. According to standard practice at the time, it was the weight of the plaintiff to carry the burden of evidence. The plaintiff knows nothing of what happened, only that he was severely injured from circumstances beyond his control. According to Justice Pollock, C. B
there are many accidents from which no presumption of negligence can arise, but I think it would be wrong to lay down as a rule that in no case can presumption of negligence arise from the fact of an accident (justice goes on to say) A barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without some negligence, and to say that a plaintiff who is injured by it must call witness from the warehouse to prove negligence seems to me preposterous.
Although such an exception was not called res ipsa loquitur at the time it was perfectly within the spirit of this doctrine. The raison dtre for the res ipsa loquitur doctrine is summarized with particular eloquence by Justice Gibson C.J who delivered the opinion of the court in Ybarra v. Spangard.
the particular force and justice of the rule (res ipsa loquitur), regarded as a presumption throwing upon the party charges the duty of producing evidence, consists in the circumstance that the chief evidence of the true cause, whether culpable or innocent, is practically accessible to him but inaccessible to the injured person.
In other words, a finding of res ipsa loquitur forces the defense to prove its own innocence because it is in a better position to due so and because all prima facie evidence points toward negligence of the defendant. In Ybarra v. Spangard a patient (plaintiff) goes to the hospital to have his appendix removed. When he wakes up, a completely unrelated part of his body, his shoulder/neck, is painful stiff and later becomes paralyzed. Plaintiff was anesthetized and therefore has no recollection of the events. Evidence supports the use of force on his shoulder. There was some confusion in this particular court case as to whether or not this doctrine was applicable to a group of people if negligence was implied by one or more of these people and there was no way of knowing who. This issue was resolved by the judge and found to apply to such situations. It was found that the burden is placed on the defendants to exculpate themselves since the defendant was in no way capable of doing so.
There are several other types of situations in which the burden of proof shifts to the defendant. This is especially true when the defendant makes claims in response to accusations by the plaintiff. As an example, say the plaintiff calls a witness, which claims that at 10 PM the defendant walked into my store, he looked agitated, and asked me for some smokes. Shortly after paying I heard a scream and when I looked outside I saw that same man running. To this the defendant replies, thats impossible, I was watching a movie at the theaters at that time. I can prove it In such a scenario the burden of proof lies with the defendant to prove that indeed he was at the movies. If he fails to do so he may lose on that particular point. Similarly, if the defendant pleads mental insanity as a defense for his or her wrong, then in most cases he has the burden of proving that statement. The plea will be rejected lest he meet the standard of proof for that plea.
Our court system is designed in such a way that accusations that cant be proved are deemed false. If we lived in a utopian society where everyone told the truth then may this presumption would not be fair. However, it is a frightening thought that someone might abuse the system and without evidence secure a conviction. We are all familiar with the dangers and consequences of taking heed to someone who yells, shes a witch. Our system seeks to protect the accused, and does so by an effective system in which the presumptions of innocence assign the burden of proof, and the evidence introduced must meet the standard of proof. By adopting such a system we do so with the full knowledge that the guilty party may not be convicted. However, we also boldly state that the consequences of not doing so are far worse.
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