The presumption of innocence is a legal principle that centers on the notion that a defendant is innocent of a crime unless the government can prove otherwise. This legal principle also relieves the defendant of the burden of proving her or his innocence.
In criminal law, the government must prove any charges made against a defendant, beyond a reasonable doubt. In practice, if jurors on a trial had any inkling of doubt that the defendant committed the charge(s) against him or her, they cannot convict.
What is the History of Presumption of Innocence?
The presumption of innocence is considered to be a basic right of anyone accused of a crime. Though the United States Constitution does not include language regarding the presumption of innocence, it first took hold in the 1895 court case of Coffin v. United States. Three Constitutional Amendments support the presumption of innocence, including the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth, which all include language expressing protection for the accused.
The Fifth Amendment, alongside the Fourteenth Amendment, both speak to “due process”. Due process refers to a person’s right to fair treatment, and to be given adequate procedural process by the government. According to the Fifth Amendment, no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
In support of the due process clauses, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial. Someone who has been charged with a crime shall not be held for an unjust amount of time, as this would be depriving a person (who could possibly be innocent) of their life, liberty, or property.
Is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt the Same Standard as Presumption of Innocence?
The presumption of innocence is a cardinal principle of our justice system. It is the prosecution’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, without the the presumption of innocence principle, the government would not have to prove guilt, and a defendant would be denied his or her right to due process. Essentially, a defendant’s presumption of innocence places the burden of proof on the prosecution.
The phrase, “innocent until proven guilty” is a cornerstone of American justice. In criminal court, jurors are instructed to only return a guilty verdict if there is no amount of reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. This serves as a preventative measure to keep the innocent out of jail. Of course, the system is not without fault, and juries can get the verdict wrong.
Is the Eighth Amendment Connected with the Presumption of Innocence?
There is a connection between the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and the presumption of innocence. In a basic sense, when a person is presumed innocent of a crime until proven guilty, he or she should be afforded the opportunity to post bail, except in certain cases. Bail is an amount of money, determined by the court, that would act as a guarantee for the person to be released from custody with the condition of showing up to his or her court date.
The Eighth Amendment reads that: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” There are situations, however, that do not afford defendants the opportunity to post bail. If a defendant is considered a flight risk, or if the crime is very serious like a violent felony, then bail may be denied. For example, a person charged with multiple crimes of murder may be held without bail.
Individuals who are granted bail may pay a certain amount to a bail bonds person, who will guarantee the court that the individual will make an appearance on his or her court date. When released on bail, the person is out on his or her “own recognizance.” If the person fails to show up for court, a warrant will be issued for his or her arrest, and bail will be revoked.
The connection between several Constitutional Amendments and the presumption of innocence is strong. Incarcerating the innocent does nothing for society except negatively impact all facets of the justice system. As a democratic society, we afford rights and protections to the accused to prevent the miscarriage of justice by all means possible. In situations where the justice system has failed the accused, it is imperative to seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Do I Need to Talk to a Lawyer About the Presumption of Innocence?
If you have been charged with a crime, you should consult a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Some charges are serious, and may result in steep fines, incarceration, probation, and could leave a lifelong impact on a person’s criminal record. Even less serious charges can affect a person’s job, ability to secure a loan, own a firearm, and more. Contact a criminal defense lawyer for guidance, and to receive the best legal representation possible.