Standards of Proof and Evidentiary Burdens

A prosecutor must prove a criminal defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” to secure a conviction in a criminal case. However, you may not fully comprehend what this standard means and how it differs from other levels of proof in the criminal process.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
This is the standard that applies during your trial and it describes the burden of proof for the prosecutor. The Florida Standard Jury elaborate on this meaning:

  • Speculation, questioning, or forced doubt are insufficient to convict
  • Reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt;
  • If the jury wavers or vacillates on guilt, the burden is not met;
  • The prosecutor must prove guilty beyond “every” reasonable doubt; and,
  • The reasonable doubt may come from the evidence or a lack thereof.

Clear and Convincing Evidence
One notch below reasonable doubt, the clear and convincing evidentiary standard applies if you are accused of domestic violence. The petitioner must provide the court with a firm belief or conviction that the allegations are true to obtain a temporary restraining order. In addition, this standard may come up where the defendant is claiming mental health issues are a factor in a criminal case.

Preponderance of the Evidence
If you are accused of violating the terms of your probation, the state must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you engaged in the alleged activity. It may also be your own burden if you are attempting to prove an affirmative defense for a crime. Generally, a preponderance means that it is more likely than not that:

  • You did violate parole; or,
  • You did engage in actions that amount to an affirmative defense.

Probable Cause

This standard applies to arrests, where law enforcement must have probable cause to charge you with a crime. Probable cause is also the burden police must prove, and which a judge must review, when deciding whether to issue a search warrant. The US Supreme Court has held that probable cause must be more than “bare suspicion,” and that the facts must be enough to lead a reasonable person to believe a crime has been or is being committed.

Reasonable Suspicion
At the lowest end of the scale, reasonable suspicion is the burden police must meet to conduct an investigative stop of a person when they believe criminal activity is stirring. Mere curiosity, hunches, or speculation are not enough to detain someone for investigative purposes, and the burden goes up a notch to probable cause if law enforcement does decide to make an arrest.