Reasonable Doubt in Criminal Law.

Author:Davison, Charles

Canadian law recognizes different states of mind for decision-makers in various situations. Police officers and others engaged in an investigation are authorized to act where they have "reasonable grounds to believe" an offence has been committed and a particular person may be guilty. In some situations, the standard is even lower. For example, a police officer may demand a breath sample from a vehicle driver where the officer has a "reasonable suspicion" that the driver has consumed alcohol.

The highest "standard of proof" under our law is reserved for decision- making in criminal cases. Although lower standards sometimes apply to questions which are not at the very center of the dispute, upon the final and most important issue--that is, whether the Crown has proven the accused person is guilty of committing an offence--nothing less than "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" will do. As our judges tell juries every day, this means that the decision-maker must ultimately be sure that the accused is guilty before he or she can be convicted of a crime.

These two concepts form the most fundamental pillars of our criminal decision-making process: that the Crown bears the onus of proving its case and that the onus is high: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. These are tied to a third essential principle: that the accused is presumed by law to be innocent, and does not have to testify, call any other witnesses to testify, or prove anything at all.

The reason for these principles is because of the high value our society places upon individual freedom. Someone who is charged with committing a criminal offence stands in jeopardy of losing their freedom and liberty. Historically, conviction of a crime almost always meant imprisonment, and sometimes worse!

In more modern times, even where a convicted person is not sent to jail, a finding of guilt almost invariably brings restrictions on freedom, even if only in the form of an order to pay a fine, or by way of a probation order placing the accused under supervision. Conviction also usually leads to a criminal record, and other orders being made against the offender. Depending on the crime, these can include prohibitions on driving and handling weapons, and a requirement to provide DNA for the national forensic data bank. In the case of sexual offenders, they may have to register with the police annually and obey various restrictions on heir activities, whereabouts and contacts with other persons, especially...

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