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Whether a private individual or business sues another person or business in civil court, or a prosecutor files criminal charges against someone, there is a standard the plaintiff or prosecutor must reach before a defendant can be found responsible for a civil wrong or guilty of a crime. This standard is known as a burden of proof and is different depending on the type of case. The three different burdens are proving someone guilty by a preponderance of the evidence, by clear and convincing evidence, or beyond a reasonable doubt.

Preponderance of the evidence

Preponderance of the evidence is the burden of proof used in most civil claims. Civil claims are those filed by and against individuals and businesses. Typically, a plaintiff in a civil claim alleges that the defendant violated a law or contract, which entitled the plaintiff to compensation or to force the defendant to stop undertaking certain actions. Civil claims do not result in incarceration.

The plaintiff in a civil claim must establish that it is more likely than not that a particular fact is true. In a breach of contract claim, the plaintiff must provide evidence that it is more likely that the defendant failed to uphold the contract than likely he did. Or, another way to think about it, is that the plaintiff may seek to prove it is more likely that the defendant breached the contract than upheld it.

Another way to view the preponderance of the evidence standard is by understanding a minimum of 51 percent of the evidence must be in the plaintiff’s favor.

Clear and convincing evidence

The burden of proving guilt by clear and convincing evidence is a higher standard used in civil courts than preponderance of evidence. When this standard is used instead of proof by a preponderance of evidence depends on federal or state law. States differ as to when certain types of civil claims require this higher standard. However, it is commonly used in claims involving wills and inheritances, fraud, and important family matters.

This also is a lower standard than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and sometimes used in certain criminal cases.

Under the clear and convincing evidence standard, a plaintiff or prosecutor must prove that it is substantially more likely than not that their claim is true. In other words, the plaintiff or prosecutor must prove each assertion is highly probable.

Beyond a reasonable doubt

Proving someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard and it is deployed in most criminal cases. It is never used in civil cases.

Under this standard, prosecutors must present enough evidence that the judge or jury can determine that the only logical explanation is that the defendant committed the crime, and no other logical explanation can be derived from the evidence.

In Massachusetts, jury instructions regarding proof beyond a reasonable double state:

“A charge is proved beyond a reasonable doubt if, after you have compared and considered all of the evidence, you have in your minds an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, that the charge is true. When we refer to moral certainty, we mean the highest degree of certainty possible in matters relating to human affairs -- based solely on the evidence that has been put before you in this case.”

If any juror has any reasonable uncertainty about the defendant’s guilt, then they cannot vote to convict. Under this burden of proof, there is no room to be unsure. Each juror who votes and the judge should be 99 percent sure the defendant is guilty.

The burden of proof can shift to the defendant

The burden of proof rests on the prosecutor or plaintiff’s shoulders. It is up to the party bringing the criminal or civil case to prove their assertions are true. The defendant, originally, does not have the burden of proving the allegations are false.

That being said, the burden of proof can shift from a plaintiff to the defendant in a civil case. A shifting burden of proof is less common in criminal cases. Once the plaintiff meets the burden of proof and establishes the necessary elements of their case, then the burden may shift to the defendant, and now the defendant must prove their defense by a preponderance of the evidence or by clear and convincing evidence.

Contact an experienced lawyer for advice

For questions regarding the burden of proof in a criminal or civil case, and whether the burden of proof is your responsibility, contact a local attorney who is experienced in your legal matter.