Criminal Law 101: What is The Burden of Proof and Who Bears It?

In a criminal case, it is usually the burden of the prosecution to prove that every single element of the crime is true beyond a reasonable doubt. However, although defendants don’t have to prove that they’re innocent to avoid getting convicted, the prosecution is also not required to prove that defendants are 100% guilty. Additionally, while the burden of proof is usually on the prosecution, in some cases, it can also shift to defendants.

How the Burden of Proof Shifts to a Defendant

Once the prosecution institutes a particular fact in an attempt to support an element of a crime in question, the burden of proof will shift to the defendant, but not to refute the fact, but rather to raise uncertainty about the fact, explains a renowned criminal defense law attorney in Provo. For example, let’s say that the prosecution demonstrates that upon searching for evidence, a police officer found a necklace that a store manager says is stolen. To refute this proof, the defendant will need to present proof that will clearly explain why he had the necklace in his possession. For instance, he could present testimony or receipt stating that he was given the necklace as a gift, essentially shifting the burden of proof to the prosecution.

The Role of Intent

In almost all criminal cases, it would be up to the prosecution to prove the intent of a defendant. With general intent crimes, for instance, the prosecution would only have to prove that the defendant committed the crime, but not why he committed it and for what. For instance, the general intent crime of assault and battery requires that a defendant intended to injure another individual or disregarded the obvious risk of injuring that individual. Assault and battery with intent to kill are considered a specific intent crime since it necessitates the defendant’s intent to injure and kill another individual.

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Affirmative Defenses

Essentially, affirmative defenses are specific circumstances that defendants could establish as defenses to actions that would’ve otherwise been considered criminal. An excellent example of this is self-defense, which requires a defendant to plead guilty to the act, but that he did so to defend himself from imminent harm—like fighting a burglar for instance. Some states might require that a defendant prove claims of self-defense through a preponderance of the evidence, in which the defendant must prove that his self-defense claim is more likely to be true than not. Other states however just require that a defendant raise a reasonable basis for self-defense and will be up to the prosecution to disprove it.

Other common affirmative defenses include insanity, entrapment, necessity, and duress. But whether the or not a defendant has the burden of proof and what it involves would depend on the jurisdiction and the specific defense. For example, a defendant should prove the defense of duress with clear and convincing proof, in which the defendant must prove his defense to be reasonably certain and highly probable.

Aside from the burden of proof, other more complex factors and legal principles will come into play during a criminal case. That said, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney in your state if you’re facing a criminal charge.