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Burden of Proof: How Much Evidence is Enough?

Burden of proof measures the level of evidence that must exist to prevail in a legal matter. Anyone making a claim bears the burden of proof. People bringing personal injury claims may have been injured, but in court they bear the burden of proof.

Prosecutors seeking to convict those charged with crimes also bear the burden of proof. How much of a burden they bear is the burden of proof. Several burdens of proof exist:

Burden of Proof Yardsticks
Burden of Proof

Preponderance of the Evidence

The preponderance of the evidence standard is met if there’s more than a 50% chance that something is true. Jury instructions define it as a slight tipping of the scales. Another way of looking at it asks “is the proposition more likely than not?”

Preponderance of the evidence requires tipping the scales of justice just over 50%, like 50.01%. Proof by a preponderance of the evidence is required in nearly all negligence cases, accident cases and injury cases even where damages are catastrophic.

People who like football comparisons say the preponderance of the evidence standard is met where the offense gets the ball just over the 50 yard line.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

Clear and convincing evidence requires that it is substantially more likely than not that the matter at hand is in fact true. This requires strongly convincing evidence. This standard is stricter than preponderance of the evidence, but less burdensome than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Courts define this in-between standard as requiring proof that is strong, positive, free from doubt and ‘full, clear and decisive’. [Stone v. Essex County Newspapers, Inc., 367 Mass. 849, 330 N.E.2d 161 (1975.)]

Clear and convincing evidence applies in proof of libel, in proving a copy of a lost will and other matters.

Going back to the football comparison, clear and convincing evidence requires delivering the ball to the opponent’s 25 or 30 yard line.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean absolute certainty. This standard, used primarily in criminal law, requires prosecutors to provide enough evidence so that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, thus overcoming the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

If real doubt exists, based on reason and common sense and after careful and impartial consideration of all available evidence, then this burden of proof has not been met.

Beyond a reasonable doubt does not require a touchdown, but the ball must be “almost” to the goal line.

Other Burden of Proof Yardsticks

There are other lower standards, used largely in criminal matters.

Reasonable Suspicion

Police must have reasonable suspicion before stopping a vehicle. Reasonable suspicion also allows officers to stop, question, briefly detain and potentially “pat down” a suspect. This very low level of suspicion is met by failing to use a turn signal, having a headlight out, or suspicious behavior not amounting to anything illegal. The football parallel is probably breaking out of the huddle.

Probable Cause

More than a reasonable suspicion, probable cause kicks in when there is evidence of guilt but not necessarily enough to convict at trial. Where probable cause exists, police may make an arrest and judges may authorize searches and arrest warrants. Our final football comparison would be hiking the ball to the quarterback.

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Attorney Myers is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, and New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. The Law Offices of Andrew D. Myers offer a broad range of legal services in personal injury cases in Massachusetts (MA) and New Hampshire (NH) areas.

The information on this web site is offered for informational purposes only. It is not offered as, and does not constitute, legal advice. Laws vary widely from state to state. You should rely only on the advice given to you during a personal consultation by a local attorney who is thoroughly familiar with state laws and the area of practice in which your concern lies. This web site must be labeled advertisement in some jurisdictions.