What are the Different Levels of Proof?

Posted by Mark Hauser

What does it mean in a legal sense to prove something?   I hope you are not expecting an exact answer because law, by necessity, deals with abstract concepts.  For example, in criminal cases, the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt is on the prosecution, and they must establish that fact “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard requires that the proof be of a nature and quality that the person would not hesitate to act on a proposition of equal certainty in his or her own life.  In civil cases, the plaintiff has the burden of proving his case by a “preponderance of the evidence.”  Simple put, this means more probable than not, or 51%.  Some, by not many, civil cases use the “clear and convincing” standard which requires a party to prove that the existence of the fact asserted is “highly probable.” 

At a preliminary hearing, which is best described as a “trial before the trial” at which the judge decides, not whether the defendant is “guilty” or “not guilty,” but whether there is enough evidence to force the defendant to stand trial.  In making this determination, the judge uses the “probable cause” legal standard, deciding whether the government has produced enough evidence to convince a reasonable jury that the defendant committed the crime(s) charged.  This is essentially the same standard that was used when the defendant was arrested where an affidavit of probable cause had to have been approved before an arrest warrant is issued.  However, at a preliminary hearing, unlike a trial, the judge does not assess the credibility of the witness.  Hence, the standard is much lower than in a trial because in a trial credibility is always challenged and is very important.  I hope this helps.  

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