A Look at the Burdens of Proof in Indiana

What are the different legal standards in Indiana and when do they apply?

You probably know that to be convicted of a crime, the State must prove you guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  One question we get frequently, however, is what exactly “beyond a reasonable doubt” means.  It is difficult to answer that question in a specific manner, but looking at some of the other standards of evidence in relation to reasonable doubt can help to demonstrate the high burden that reasonable doubt requires.

To the extent that there is a definition of reasonable doubt, Indiana’s pattern jury instructions contain it.  The following jury instruction, commonly used throughout Indiana in criminal cases to help the jury understand reasonable doubt, tries to explain what reasonable doubt is:

The burden is upon the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant is guilty of the crime(s) charged. It is a strict and heavy burden. The evidence must overcome any reasonable doubt concerning the Defendant’s guilt. But it does not mean that a Defendant’s guilt must be proved beyond all possible doubt.

A reasonable doubt is a fair, actual and logical doubt based upon reason and common sense. A reasonable doubt may arise either from the evidence or from a lack of evidence. Reasonable doubt exists when you are not firmly convinced of the Defendant’s guilt after you have weighed and considered all the evidence.

A Defendant must not be convicted on suspicion or speculation. It is not enough for the State to show that the Defendant is probably guilty. On the other hand, there are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty. The State does not have to overcome every possible doubt.

The State must prove each element of the crime(s) by evidence that firmly convinces each of you and leaves no reasonable doubt. The proof must be so convincing that you can rely and act upon it in this matter of the highest importance.

If you find that there is a reasonable doubt that the Defendant is guilty of the crime(s), you must give the Defendant the benefit of that doubt and find the Defendant not guilty of the crime under consideration.

Although this jury instruction may be helpful in understanding reasonable doubt, considering the other legal standards in relation to reasonable doubt helps to put the high burden in perspective.

The lowest standard on the spectrum is reasonable suspicion, and this is what a police officer generally needs to make a traffic stop.  According to the United States Supreme Court, reasonable suspicion is more than an “inchoate and uparticularized suspicion or hunch.”  Reasonable suspicion must be based on specific and articulable facts taken together with rational inferences from those same facts.

Next up is probable cause, and this is the standard that must be met in order for police officers to make arrests or to be issued warrants (and, in some cases, to make a search).  Probable cause has been defined in Ballentine’s Law Dictionary as “a reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to justify a prudent and cautious person’s belief that certain facts are probably true.”  In relation to warrants, the Oxford Companion to American Law defines probable cause as “information sufficient to warrant a prudent person’s belief that the wanted individual had committed a crime or that evidence of a crime or contraband would be found in a search.”  Probable cause is the standard for filing criminal charges, but the fact that charges were filed does not mean that the State can meet the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

Sitting close to the middle on the legal standard continuum is the preponderance of the evidence, and this standard is what is typically applied in the context of civil cases.  A preponderance of the evidence sounds much more complicated than it is, as it boils down to simply meaning more likely than not.  Thus, if a factfinder is just 51 percent convinced a particular fact is true, the fact has been proven by a preponderance of the evidence.  While this standard is generally found in civil law, it is also used for alleged violations of probation.  In such a scenario, the State must only prove a violation of probation by a preponderance of the evidence.

As we get closer to beyond a reasonable doubt, we encounter the clear and convincing evidence standard.  This standard, as defined in our pattern jury instructions, means that the facts supporting the claim are highly probable.  Although these facts must be highly probable, they must not be established beyond a reasonable doubt as defined above.  So when does the clear and convincing standard apply?  Most commonly it is found in CHINS cases, where the State may be alleging that a parent is unfit and seeking to remove the children from the parent’s care.  It can also be found in relation to punitive damages and some defamation claims.

Sitting atop the foregoing standards is beyond a reasonable doubt, and this standard is required to be met by the State in criminal trials throughout the United States.  Again, this is the highest and most strict burden applied in our courts.  And rightfully so, as liberty (and sometimes life) are at stake in a criminal trial.  Beyond a reasonable doubt cannot easily be defined a percentage or numeric value, but most people understand that overcoming any reasonable doubt requires much from the State and its evidence.  In some cases, it may not take a jury long to agree that someone was proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but not all cases are so simple.  After all, the evidence must firmly convince each juror and leave no doubt of the accused’s guilt.  Only if this burden is met may the jury return a verdict of guilty.

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, contact the dedicated Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys at Banks & Brower.  Having successfully tried numerous cases to juries, we understand how to hold the State to their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  Contact us at (317) 870-0019 or at info@banksbrower.com to discuss your case.