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

Fundamental Cases in Criminal Justice by Adam J. McKee

Part V:  Juvenile Justice

The following case has been heavily edited and abridged.  The idea is to make it more readable.  As such, it should not be relied upon as binding authority.

Constitutional questions decided by this Court concerning the juvenile process have centered on the adjudicatory stage at “which a determination is made as to whether a juvenile is a ‘delinquent’ as a result of alleged misconduct on his part, with the consequence that he may be committed to a state institution.”  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.'”  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.

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 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 “any 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.”  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.  The New York Court of Appeals then affirmed by a four-to-three vote, expressly sustaining the constitutionality of § 744.  We noted probable jurisdiction.  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.”  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 way in which law should be enforced and justice administered.”

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.  Mr. Justice Frankfurter stated that “it 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.'”  In a similar vein, the Court said in Brinegar v. United States that “guilt 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 crystallized 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 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 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.”

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.”  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.”

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 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: “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.”

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 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 adjudge him guilty of a criminal offense without convincing a proper factfinder of his guilt with utmost certainty.

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.


We turn to the question whether juveniles, like adults, are constitutionally entitled to proof beyond a reasonable doubt when they are charged with violation of a criminal law.  The same considerations that demand extreme caution in factfinding to protect the innocent adult apply as well to the innocent child. We do not find convincing the contrary arguments of the New York Court of Appeals. Gault rendered untenable much of the reasoning relied upon by that court to sustain the constitutionality of § 744 (b).  The Court of Appeals indicated that a delinquency adjudication “is not a ‘conviction’ (§ 781); that it affects no right or privilege, including the right to hold public office or to obtain a license (§ 782); and a cloak of protective confidentiality is thrown around all the proceedings.  The court said further: “The delinquency status is not made a crime; and the proceedings are not criminal.  There is, hence, no deprivation of due process in the statutory provision [challenged by appellant] . . . .”

In effect, the Court of Appeals distinguished the proceedings in question here from a criminal prosecution by use of what Gault called the “‘civil’ label-of-convenience which has been attached to juvenile proceedings.”  But Gault expressly rejected that distinction as a reason for holding the Due Process Clause inapplicable to a juvenile proceeding.  The Court of Appeals also attempted to justify the preponderance standard on the related ground that juvenile proceedings are designed “not to punish, but to save the child.”  Again, however, Gault expressly rejected this justification.  We made clear in that decision that civil labels and good intentions do not themselves obviate the need for criminal due process safeguards in juvenile courts, for “a proceeding where the issue is whether the child will be found to be ‘delinquent’ and subjected to the loss of his liberty for years is comparable in seriousness to a felony prosecution.”

Nor do we perceive any merit in the argument that to afford juveniles the protection of proof beyond a reasonable doubt would risk destruction of beneficial aspects of the juvenile process.  Use of the reasonable-doubt standard during the adjudicatory hearing will not disturb New York’s policies that a finding that a child has violated a criminal law does not constitute a criminal conviction, that such a finding does not deprive the child of his civil rights, and that juvenile proceedings are confidential.  Nor will there be any effect on the informality, flexibility, or speed of the hearing at which the factfinding takes place. And the opportunity during the post-adjudicatory or dispositional hearing for a wide-ranging review of the child’s social history and for his individualized treatment will remain unimpaired. Similarly, there will be no effect on the procedures distinctive to juvenile proceedings that are employed prior to the adjudicatory hearing.

The Court of Appeals observed that “a child’s best interest is not necessarily, or even probably, promoted if he wins in the particular inquiry which may bring him to the juvenile court.”  It is true, of course, that the juvenile may be engaging in a general course of conduct inimical to his welfare that calls for judicial intervention.  But that intervention cannot take the form of subjecting the child to the stigma of a finding that he violated a criminal law and to the possibility of institutional confinement on proof insufficient to convict him were he an adult.

We conclude, as we concluded regarding the essential due process safeguards applied in Gault, that the observance of the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt “will not compel the States to abandon or displace any of the substantive benefits of the juvenile process.”

Finally, we reject the Court of Appeals’ suggestion that there is, in any event, only a “tenuous difference” between the reasonable-doubt and preponderance standards. The suggestion is singularly unpersuasive. In this very case, the trial judge’s ability to distinguish between the two standards enabled him to make a finding of guilt that he conceded he might not have made under the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, the trial judge’s action evidences the accuracy of the observation of commentators that “the preponderance test is susceptible to the misinterpretation that it calls on the trier of fact merely to perform an abstract weighing of the evidence in order to determine which side has produced the greater quantum, without regard to its effect in convincing his mind of the truth of the proposition asserted.”


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. We therefore hold, in agreement with Chief Judge Fuld in dissent in the Court of Appeals, “that, where a 12-year-old child is charged with an act of stealing which renders him liable to confinement for as long as six years, then, as a matter of due process . . . the case against him must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”


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Read the full text of In Re Winship (1970) on Justia.

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Last Modified: 04/30/2021

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