397 U.S. 358 (1970), 778, In re Winship

Docket Nº:No. 778
Citation:397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368
Party Name:In re Winship
Case Date:March 31, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 358

397 U.S. 358 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368

In re Winship

No. 778

United States Supreme Court

March 31, 1970

Argued January 20, 1970



Relying on a preponderance of the evidence, the standard of proof required by § 744(b) of the New York Family Court Act, a New York Family Court judge found that appellant, then a 12-year-old boy, had committed an act that "if done by an adult, would constitute the crime . . . of Larceny." The New York Court of Appeals affirmed, sustaining the constitutionality of § 744(b).

Held: Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required by the Due Process Clause in criminal trials, is among the "essentials of due process and fair treatment" required during the adjudicatory stage when a juvenile is charged with an act that would constitute a crime if committed by an adult. Pp. 361-368.

2 N.Y.2d 196, 247 N.E.2d 253, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Constitutional questions decided by this Court concerning the juvenile process have centered on the adjudicatory stage, at

which a determination is made as to

Page 359

whether a juvenile is a [90 S.Ct. 1070] "delinquent" as a result of alleged misconduct on his part, with the consequence that he may be committed to a state institution.

In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 13 (1967). Gault decided that, although the Fourteenth Amendment does not require that the hearing at this stage conform with all the requirements of a criminal trial, or even of the usual administrative proceeding, the Due Process Clause does require application during the adjudicatory hearing of "`the essentials of due process and fair treatment.'" Id. at 30. This case presents the single, narrow question whether proof beyond a reasonable doubt is among the "essentials of due process and fair treatment" required during the adjudicatory stage when a juvenile is charged with an act which would constitute a crime if committed by an adult.1

Section 712 of the New York Family Court Act defines a juvenile delinquent as "a person over seven and less than sixteen years of age who does any act which, if done by an adult, would constitute a crime." During a 1967 adjudicatory hearing, conducted pursuant to § 742 of the Act, a judge in New York Family Court

Page 360

found that appellant, then a 12-year-old boy, had entered a locker and stolen $112 from a woman's pocketbook. The petition which charged appellant with delinquency alleged that his act, "if done by an adult, would constitute the crime or crimes of Larceny." The judge acknowledged that the proof might not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but rejected appellant's contention that such proof was required by the Fourteenth Amendment. The judge relied instead on § 744(b) of the New York Family Court Act, which provides that

[a]ny determination at the conclusion of [an adjudicatory] hearing that a [juvenile] did an act or acts must be based on a preponderance of the evidence.2

During a subsequent dispositional hearing, appellant was ordered placed in a training school for an initial period of 18 months, subject to annual extensions of his commitment until his 18th birthday -- six years, in appellant's case. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, affirmed without opinion, 30 App.Div.2d 781, 291 N.Y.S.2d 1005 (1968). The New York Court of Appeals then affirmed by a four-to-three vote, expressly sustaining the constitutionality of § 744(b), 24 N.Y.2d 196, 247 N.E.2d 253 (1969).3

Page 361

We noted [90 S.Ct. 1071] probable jurisdiction, 396 U.S. 885 (1969). We reverse.


The requirement that guilt of a criminal charge be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt dates at least from our early years as a Nation. The

demand for a higher degree of persuasion in criminal cases was recurrently expressed from ancient times, [though] its crystallization into the formula "beyond a reasonable doubt" seems to have occurred as late as 1798. It is now accepted in common law jurisdictions as the measure of persuasion by which the prosecution must convince the trier of all the essential elements of guilt.

C. McCormick, Evidence § 321, pp. 681-682 (1954); see also J. Wigmore, Evidence § 2497 (3d ed.1940). Although virtually unanimous adherence to the reasonable doubt standard in common law jurisdictions may not conclusively establish it as a requirement of due process, such adherence does "reflect a profound judgment about the

Page 362

way in which law should be enforced and justice administered." Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 155 (1968).

Expressions in many opinions of this Court indicate that it has long been assumed that proof of a criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt is constitutionally required. See, for example, Miles v. United States, 103 U.S. 304, 312 (1881); Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469, 488 (1895); Holt v. United States, 218 U.S. 245, 253 (1910); Wilson v. United States, 232 U.S. 563, 569-570 (1914); Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 174 (1949); Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 795 (1952); Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 138 (1954); Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525-526 (1958). Cf. Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895). Mr. Justice Frankfurter stated that

[i]t is the duty of the Government to establish . . . guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This notion -- basic in our law and rightly one of the boasts of a free society -- is a requirement and a safeguard of due process of law in the historic, procedural content of "due process."

Leland v. Oregon, supra, at 802-803 (dissenting opinion). In a similar vein, the Court said in Brinegar v. United States, supra, at 174, that

[g]uilt in a criminal case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and by evidence confined to that which long experience in the common law tradition, to some extent embodied in the Constitution, has crystalized into rules of evidence consistent with that standard. These rules are historically grounded rights of our system, developed to safeguard men from dubious and unjust convictions, with resulting forfeitures of life, liberty and property.

Davis v. United States, supra, at 488, stated that the requirement is implicit in "constitutions . . . [which] recognize the fundamental principles that are deemed essential for the protection of life and liberty." In Davis, a murder conviction was

Page 363

reversed because the trial judge instructed the jury that it was their duty to convict when the evidence was equally balanced regarding the sanity of the accused. This Court said:

On the contrary, he is entitled to an acquittal of the specific crime charged if, upon all the evidence, there is reasonable doubt whether he was capable in law of committing crime. . . . No man should be deprived of his life under the forms of law unless the jurors who try him are able, upon their consciences, to say that the evidence before them . . . is sufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged.

Id. at 484, 493.

The reasonable doubt standard plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure. It is a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error. The standard provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence -- that bedrock "axiomatic and elementary" principle whose "enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law." Coffin v. United States, supra, at 453. As the dissenters in the New York Court of Appeals observed, and we agree,

a person accused of a crime . . . would be at a severe disadvantage, a disadvantage amounting to a lack of fundamental fairness, if he could be adjudged guilty and imprisoned for years on the strength of the same evidence as would suffice in a civil case.

24 N.E.2d at 205, 247 N.E.2d at 259.

The requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt has this vital role in our criminal procedure for cogent reasons. The accused, during a criminal prosecution, has at stake interests of immense importance, both because of the possibility that he may lose his liberty upon conviction and because of the certainty that he would be stigmatized by the conviction. Accordingly, a society

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that values the good name and freedom of every individual should not condemn a man for commission of a crime when there is reasonable doubt about his guilt. As we said in Speiser v. Randall, supra, at 525-526:

There is always, in litigation, a margin of error, representing error in factfinding, which both parties must take into account. Where one party has at stake an interest of transcending value -- as a criminal defendant his liberty -- this margin of error is reduced as to him by the process of placing on the other party the burden of . . . persuading the factfinder at the conclusion of the trial of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Due process commands that no man shall lose his liberty unless the Government has borne the burden of . . . convincing the factfinder of his guilt.

To this end, the reasonable doubt standard is indispensable, for it "impresses on the trier of fact the necessity of reaching a subjective state of certitude of the facts in issue." Dorsen & Rezneck, In Re Gault and the Future of Juvenile Law, 1 Family Law Quarterly, No. 4, pp. 1, 26 (1967).

Moreover, use of the reasonable doubt standard is indispensable to command the respect and confidence of the community in applications of the criminal law. It is critical that the moral force of the criminal law not be diluted by a [90 S.Ct. 1073] standard of proof that leaves people in doubt whether innocent men are being condemned. It is also important in our free society that every individual going about his ordinary affairs have confidence that his government cannot...

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