Is the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” achievable in modern life?
Being accused of a crime is a stressful experience that can create long-term consequences for you and your family. But regardless of the type of crime you’re charged with, the law considers you innocent until you’re proven guilty.
What does “innocent until proven guilty” mean?
The presumption of innocence is among the most sacred principles in the American court system. The concept of being innocent until proven guilty means that anybody accused of a crime is assumed innocent until the allegations leveled against them are proven. It squarely places the burden of proof on the government to show that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens that no one shall be “deprived of life, property or liberty without following the due process of law.” The 14th Amendment applies this principle to states in the U.S.
What is due process?
Due process can be described as the legal process in which a criminal suspect is either found guilty or not guilty. The fact that a person has been accused of committing a certain crime doesn’t necessarily make them guilty.
Due process is a constitutional guarantee that prohibits the government from treating citizens in an unfair manner. Technically, it means that the court must follow all procedural standards that protect the personal freedoms of the people.
In other words, due process entails the protections afforded to all citizens. The protections can be separated into 2 categories:
- Procedural due process. Refers to the requirement for the government to use the stipulated legal process before depriving a person of their life, liberty or property. This includes giving the accused person notice and ensuring they have the opportunity to be heard in front of a neutral judge. The presumption of innocence is regarded as a procedural process.
- Substantive due process. Refers to the rights a person holds, like freedom of speech and freedom to privacy that cannot be infringed by the government without using due process.
How does “innocent until proven guilty” protect you?
Besides requiring the government to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the presumption of innocence offers various protections that include:
- 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination
- 5th Amendment right to remain silent
- 6th Amendment right to a lawyer
- 8th Amendment prohibition against excessive bail
- The right not to be unjustly detained
Where did “innocent until proven guilty” come from?
Most people believe the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” is found in the U.S. Constitution when, in fact, this is not the case. However, the concept does originate from the constitutional due process protections found in the 5th, 6th, 8th and 14th Amendments.
What is the burden of proof?
The burden of proof is a legal requirement for determining which party has to prove their case is correct. “Innocent until proven guilty” implies that the prosecution is the party that bears the burden of proof.
The prosecution has to present affirmative evidence showing the court that the defendant is guilty of the crime they are being accused of to warrant a conviction. Lack of evidence exonerating the defendant from guilt isn’t enough.
Different standards of proof in criminal and civil cases
The evidentiary standard in a case is as important as the person or party with the burden of proof. In a criminal case, the prosecution has a duty to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the main difference between criminal cases and civil cases. For a civil case, guilt only needs to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.
Challenges with upholding the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”
All accused persons are innocent before the law until proven guilty. Sometimes it’s easy to condemn another person without establishing the facts about the allegations. This is why the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is entrenched in our constitution. There are many instances where people are charged and sentenced for mistakes or crimes they didn’t commit.
While the concept appears good on paper, it’s not as easy to practice the concept that someone is innocent until they are proven guilty. Many people rush to judge a defendant without interrogating the facts related to the case. The media often plays a significant role in influencing public opinion with regard to an accused person.
For example, the media can portray the defendant in a way that makes it nearly impossible to believe they’re innocent. Such reporting can even end up influencing or swaying the decision of judges and juries. No matter how guilty a person appears to be, it’s important to follow due process and establish all facts about the allegations before making a decision.