Criminal Law

Is the Presumption of Innocence in the Constitution?

The presumption of innocence — or being "innocent until proven guilty" — is widely known and considered one of your basic rights if you're ever accused of a crime. But is it actually in the U.S. Constitution?

Direct Statements and Amendments

Technically speaking, it's not. The Constitution does not mention this right by name. Instead, the general principle comes from English common law. It has since been backed up firmly in numerous court rulings, such as Coffin v. United States in 1895.

While the phrase "presumption of innocence" is not in the Constitution, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments both touch on "due process." Due process generally means that the government cannot deprive you of your freedom or property unless they go through the right processes. It is understood that your right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is a fundamental element of due process. In that sense, it is a constitutional right, even if it is not directly addressed.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The courts have held the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments also ensure that you will not be convicted of a crime unless the prosecutor proves that you are guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." This high burden of proof in criminal cases is closely related to the presumption of innocence, ensuring you receive a fair trial.

In civil cases, the standard is much lower. In such cases, the standard of proof is "preponderance of the evidence." This generally means the jury believes it is more likely than not that the defendant did what the other side says they did.

What It Means for Those Accused

For those accused of crimes under U.S. law, the presumption of innocence and the proving of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt mean that the burden of proof is on the prosecution to show that you broke the law. People sometimes assume that you go to court to prove that you're innocent, but this isn't the case. You have no obligation to do so. Criminal defense strategies usually center more on poking holes in the prosecution's case against you.

The court process must start with the belief that you're innocent, and this only changes if the prosecution establishes guilt to a degree that goes beyond a reasonable doubt. You don't have to prove anything if the prosecution doesn't meet this burden.

Other Available Protections

If you are accused of a criminal act, you have the right to be presumed innocent. This important principle protects you by shifting the burden of proof of your guilt to the prosecutor. In addition to this, the Constitution also affords different protections to the defendant. These include:

  • The right to remain silent (Fifth Amendment)
  • The right to an attorney (Sixth Amendment)
  • Protection against self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment)
  • Right to a jury trial (Sixth Amendment)

Keep in mind: the right to a jury trial does not apply to all criminal charges. For the most part, misdemeanors and other minor charges do not come with the right to a trial by jury.

Understanding Your Rights

It's critical to know what you are and are not obligated to do in court, what legal rights you have, and how the due process of law works. Never let any assumptions about the legal system cloud your thinking, and remember that you have constitutional rights. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you protect those rights.

Getting an Attorney If You Are Charged With a Crime

Criminal charges are very serious and can change your life. But you are entitled to several legal protections, and depending on your case, you can use several defense strategies. If you believe your rights were violated or want to learn more about your rights as a defendant, speak to a criminal defense attorney.