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

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

In re Winship

No. 778

Argued January 20, 1970

Decided March 31, 1970

397 U.S. 358

Syllabus

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. 397 U. S. 361-368.

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

Primary Holding
A juvenile who is charged with conduct that would give rise to criminal liability for an adult has a due process right to have the elements of the offense proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Facts
A 12-year-old boy, Winship, stole money from a wallet in a locker. He was found by a family court judge to have committed an act that would equate to larceny if it had been done by an adult. While the evidence might not have established his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the trial court judge used the preponderance of the evidence standard that was imposed by the relevant section of the New York Family Court Act. As a result, Winship was charged with juvenile delinquency. He challenged the constitutionality of the standard of proof.

Opinions

Majority

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall

Determinations of whether a juvenile is a delinquent do not need to maintain all of the strict procedural rules of a criminal trial or administrative proceeding, but they must retain the core elements of due process. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a long-standing doctrine in the criminal law that is almost always required by the court. It is an important tool in reducing the risk of error and applies just as meaningfully to juveniles as to adults to protect those who are erroneously charged. Juvenile proceedings may be considered to be civil proceedings within the state, but they are essentially criminal trials because they can result in the deprivation of an individual's liberty. The purposes of the juvenile justice system would not be undermined by heightening the standard of proof.

Concurrence

  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)

The difference between the preponderance of the evidence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt is meaningful, even though there is no way to quantify the degree of certainty precisely for each standard. Juries generally will be able to understand that they must have a much higher level of confidence in their beliefs about what happened in a case if they are informed of the elevated standard. As in criminal cases involving adults, there is always a potential for jury error, and it is far preferable for a guilty juvenile to avoid classification as a delinquent than for an innocent juvenile to be inaccurately classified as a delinquent. The costs of error are substantial, so the procedures used to minimize them should be equally substantial. Even though the deprivation of liberty may be less lasting for a juvenile than for an adult, a finding of delinquency creates a persistent stigma and should not be lightly imposed.

Dissent

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • Potter Stewart

Dissent

  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)

Case Commentary

This case clearly established that due process requires the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in any criminal circumstance.

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