In re Winship Solidified Reasonable Doubt StandardHistorical
In In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970), the U.S. Supreme Court held juveniles, like adults, are constitutionally entitled to proof beyond a reasonable doubt when they are charged with violation of a criminal law. In reaching its decision, the Court clarified that every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which a defendant is charged must be proven in accordance with the standard.
Facts of In re Winship
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 found that Samuel Winship, then a 12-year-old boy, had entered a locker and stolen $112 from a woman’s pocketbook. The petition which charged Winship 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 Winship’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.”
Winship ultimately placed in a training school for an initial period of 18 months, subject to annual extensions of his commitment until his 18th birthday. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, affirmed without opinion. The New York Court of Appeals then affirmed by a four-to-three vote, expressly sustaining the constitutionality of § 744(b).
Supreme Court’s Decision in In re Winship
By a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court reversed. It held that the preponderance of evidence standard used by the juvenile court was unconstitutional. “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,” Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote.
In reaching its decision, the majority highlighted the constitutional importance of the reasonable doubt standard. “The reasonable doubt standard plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure,” Justice Brennan explained. “It is a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error.”
The Court went on to hold that the Due Process Clause mandates that every element of a criminal offense be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. “Lest there remain any doubt about the constitutional stature of the reasonable doubt standard, we explicitly hold that the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged,” Justice Brennan wrote.
With regard to juveniles, the majority rejected the argument that to afford juveniles the protection of proof beyond a reasonable doubt would risk the destruction of beneficial aspects of the juvenile process. “In sum, the constitutional safeguard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is as much required during the adjudicatory stage of a delinquency proceeding as are those constitutional safeguards applied in Gault — notice of charges, right to counsel, the rights of confrontation and examination, and the privilege against self-incrimination,” Justice Brennan wrote.
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- Establishment ClauseFree Exercise Clause
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedoms of Press
- Freedom of Assembly, and Petitition
- The Right to Bear Arms
- Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
- Due Process
- Eminent Domain
- Rights of Criminal Defendants
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.