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Of the many phrases you hear in court cases, “burden of proof” is one of the most common. That’s because there is a burden of proof in all types of legal cases – criminal and civil. A burden of proof describes the standard by which a party must prove the facts to win a case.

While both criminal and civil cases involve a burden of proof, there is a different standard for each, which can account for different outcomes when weighing the same evidence. For example, when O.J. Simpson was tried in a criminal court for murder, he was found not guilty because the prosecutor couldn’t meet the necessary burden of proof.

However, when the same evidence was reviewed in a civil case, he was found liable for murder. While he wasn’t criminally convicted of murder, he was ordered to pay damages.

What Is the Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases?

A criminal case involves the alleged committing of a crime. When a person breaks the law, they are prosecuted by the government. The individual facing criminal charges is called the defendant. The government assigns an attorney, called a prosecutor or district attorney, who represents the government’s interests in court and prosecutes the case against the defendant.

The burden of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That means the prosecutor must prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual committed the crime.

How to Defend Against the Criminal Burden of Proof

A criminal defense attorney’s goal is to challenge the evidence and the prosecutor’s arguments to create enough doubt that the individual did not commit the crime. That doesn’t mean that the defense lawyer must prove the individual is innocent. They must prove that reasonable doubt exists as to whether the defendant committed the crime.

What Is the Burden of Proof in Civil Cases?

A civil case is a lawsuit brought by a private individual against another party. The person who files a civil suit is called a plaintiff, and the other party is the defendant. It is possible to have multiple plaintiffs or defendants. The defendant in a civil lawsuit will not go to jail if they lose the case. Instead, the goal of a civil suit is typically to make someone stop something (seeking an injunction) or pay damages to the victim.

The burden of proof in a civil case is “a preponderance of the evidence.” This level of proof is much lower than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove that most of the evidence shows that the defendant did the actions they are being accused of.

For example, if a plaintiff alleges a defendant was negligent in a car accident, they must prove all elements of negligence by a preponderance of the evidence. One piece of negligence is that the defendant breached a legal duty. If there is a police report indicating that the defendant received a ticket for speeding, then that would likely be enough evidence to prove the defendant breached a legal duty.

Why Is There a Difference in the Burden of Proof?

The level of proof necessary for a criminal trial is so high because the consequences are severe. In many cases, the defendant may potentially lose their freedom and go to jail or prison. Freedom should only be denied in the most serious of situations. Thus, the court wants to be sure there is an extremely high level of evidence to support the conviction.

Although some civil verdicts can also be significant, especially when they involve a lot of money, monetary liability is much less imposing than losing a Constitutional right. Thus, the necessary burden of proof is much lower in a civil trial.