Perhaps one of the most often stated, yet misunderstood, precepts of law is that a defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In a literal sense, that is simply not the case.
First of all, there is no such concept as “innocence” in the criminal law. A person charged with a crime may be found guilty or not guilty; there is neither a plea nor a potential finding of innocence. (In limited circumstances there is also a plea of nolo contendre, but that is beyond the scope of this Point of Law.) The true meaning of “The Presumption of Innocence” is that it is a procedural mechanism pursuant to which the burden of proof is placed on the prosecution to prove that the person charged with a crime is guilty of the crime charged. In other words, it is the burden of the People (e.g., The State of New York) to prove each and every element of the crime charged, beyond a reasonable doubt, in order for a judge or jury to convict the defendant. The defendant may remain silent; he need not say, much less prove, anything, and may still be found not guilty (if the People have not met their burden of proof). The reason for placing this heavy burden upon the People is generally considered to be fairness. It is assumed that the State has greater power and resources than any individual, so it is only fair to make the burden of the State greater than that of the individual charged with the commission of a crime.
In a literal (albeit not legal) sense, most persons charged with a crime are in fact considered “probably” guilty. A police officer may arrest a person if he has “probable cause” to believe that the person has committed a crime. That may result from the officer’s own observations, or from the officer acting upon the sworn complaint of another citizen. Other times a person may be arrested if a judge issues a warrant for his arrest. This is usually the result of the judge having been presented with evidence or other information which, in the view of the judge, shows that there is “probable cause” to believe that the person charged did in fact commit the crime for which he is being charged.
The Presumption of Innocence is, indeed, alive and well in the State of New York. It is an important and integral part of our criminal jurisprudence, and is a benefit to those accused of criminal conduct. We are well advised, however, to understand its true meaning.
The Presumption of Innocence
The Law Office of Alan R. Lewis, Esq., is pleased to present periodic statements of Points of Law for the general edification or our clients and friends. We will publish new articles every few months, so please visit our website for new articles periodically. This is not intended to be legal advice, and may on occasion be only the opinion of the author. If you have a legal question, you are encouraged to consult with an attorney of your choosing, who can advise you appropriately based upon the particular circumstances of your situation.