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What Is the Burden of Proof in Federal Criminal Cases?

burden of proof


Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The burden of proof in a federal criminal trial is founded in the Due Process Clause of Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  In 1970, the United States Supreme Court expounded upon the Due Process Clause to coin the now famous phrase that a person’s guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 374 (1970).  In particular, the Winship Court held that the government must prove every element of every crime the defendant is charged with beyond a reasonable doubt.  Id. at 364.   Today, the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard constitutes the burden of proof for criminal trials in both state and federal courts.

Elements of a Crime

Every crime has two or more parts – referred to as “elements” – which must take place for that crime to have occurred.  Most crimes have an element pertaining to the defendant’s state of mind, sometimes referred to as “intent.”  The other elements may regard the type of action taken, the location of the action (i.e. near a school zone), or an object used during the action (i.e. a deadly weapon).  To give an example, the elements of a federal drug trafficking charge are to 1) knowingly or intentionally, 2) manufacture, distribute, or dispense, 3) a controlled substance.  The first element is the intent element, the second element is the type of action, and the third element is the object used in commission of the crime.

In order to meet its burden of proof, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that every element of the crime took place.  To borrow from the drug trafficking example above, the government must prove that the substance involved was a controlled substance, that the defendant manufactured, distributed, or dispensed the substance, and that the defendant intended to manufacture or distribute the substance.  If the government cannot prove that the substance involved was a controlled substance, the defendant must be acquitted. Likewise, if the defendant did not know he was distributing the substance – i.e. it was planted in his suitcase without his knowledge – the defendant must be acquitted.


Federal criminal trials occur in two parts – the fact finding phase, where the defendant’s guilt or innocence is determined, and if guilty the sentencing phase, where the defendant’s sentence or punishment is determined. As noted above, in the fact finding phase, the government is held to the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt burden of proof.  However, in the sentencing phase, factors that affect a defendant’s sentence need only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.  To meet the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, the government must prove that more than 50% of the evidence suggests a certain conclusion.

Your Criminal Defense Attorneys

Dr. Nick Oberheiden, founder and principal, has represented clients from across the country in government investigations, grand jury proceedings, and as lead criminal defense attorney. Trained at Harvard Law School, UCLA School of Law, and several other institutions of world reputation, Dr. Oberheiden understands what it takes to prevail in complex criminal matters. His practice is limited to federal law, federal criminal law, and government investigations.

Are you being investigated or charged with a federal criminal offense?  Call Oberheiden, P.C. today for a free and confidential consultation with one of our criminal defense attorneys.

Oberheiden, P.C.
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This information has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. This information may constitute attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Reading of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Prior results do not guarantee similar future outcomes. Oberheiden, P.C. is a Texas LLP with headquarters in Dallas. Mr. Oberheiden limits his practice to federal law.

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