#08: Presumptions of Law In the Stand Your Ground Era

Table of Contents:

Presumptions of Law In the Stand Your Ground Era
Presumption of Innocence
Other Important Presumptions of Law
Presumption of Guilt
Presumed To Be Standing Your Ground


Presumptions of Law In the Stand Your Ground Era

A presumption is an idea taken to be true. It’s often used as the basis for other ideas, although most presumptions are uncertain. In common usage, presumptions are informal. Legal “presumptions” apply in court to a variety of cases and circumstances. A legal presumption is an inference that must be made, given certain facts. Most legal presumptions are rebuttable; they can be rejected by the court if proven to be false or doubtful based on the evidence. Some presumptions are conclusive; they must be accepted to be true without rebuttal.

Presumption of Innocence

The most well-known presumption in American law is that of innocence. It is a fundamental principle of the American criminal justice system. All defendants accused of a criminal act are presumed innocent until proven guilty in court beyond a reasonable doubt. There can be no debate about the presumption because it is guaranteed in the in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Technically, the magic words “presumed innocent” are not written the Fifth Amendment. However, it was recognized in English common law for centuries and has been affirmed in countless U.S. Supreme Court cases, beginning with Coffin v. United States in 1895. The court used quaint and specific language to ensure the presumption’s enforcement in all criminal cases. “The law presumes that persons charged with crime are innocent until they are proven by competent evidence to be guilty. To the benefit of this presumption the defendants are all entitled, and this presumption stands as their sufficient protection unless it has been removed by evidence proving their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”[1]

Often, especially when used by nonlawyers, the presumption of innocence is misused. They frequently believe that judges, lawyers, and witnesses are obliged to presume innocence. That’s not the case. The law presumes innocence. Citizens as such are not bound by this vaunted presumption. But the law we must obey assumes that all defendants in criminal cases are innocent, until their guilt is proved beyond any reasonable doubt. Police officers rarely presume innocence but the often feel a suspect is good for the crime they are investigating.

Other Important Presumptions of Law

There are many other legal presumptions in American law. For example, a conclusion may be presumed if it is based upon a particular set of facts, combined with established laws, logic or reasoning. This allows a court a court to presume a fact is true until it is rebutted by the greater weight of the evidence against it. A child born of a husband and wife living together is presumed to be the natural child of the husband. A person who has disappeared and not been heard from for seven years is presumed to be dead. Constructive notice is a presumption of law. In court, a party cannot deny or ignore a matter if notice is given—it’s a presumption of fact. If a mother and her infant perish in the same conflagration, the law presumes that the mother survived, and that the infant perished first. This presumption allows estate succession to the heirs of the mother, not the infant.

Presumption of Guilt

Wikipedia says, “A presumption of guilt is any presumption within the criminal justice system that a person is guilty of a crime, for example a presumption that a suspect is guilty unless or until proven to be innocent.” At first reading, this is nonsense at best, and a misstatement of law at worst. However, “It would be a mistake to think of the presumption of guilt as the opposite of the presumption of innocence that we are so used to thinking of as the polestar of the criminal process and . . . occupies an important position in Due Process Model. All this so-called presumption does is prioritize speed and efficiency over reliability, and prevails when due process is absent.”[2] In State v. Brady, the court said, “Presumptions of guilt and prima facie cases of guilt in the trial of a party charged with crime mean no more than that from the proof of certain facts the jury will be warranted in convicting the accused of the offense with which he is charged.”[3]

Factual guilt differs from presumed guilt. The term is used to describe what a defendant did. Conversely, it is what a prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. It is entirely possible for a defendant to be factually guilty where there is insufficient evidence to prove legal guilt.

Guilt in the era of Stand Your Ground legislation is porous; full of tiny holes, openings, escape hatches, and walk ways out of courthouses. It often gives factually guilty suspects not guilty verdicts because the burden of proof on the prosecutor is insurmountable.

Presumed To Be Standing Your Ground

Standing one’s ground is a product of 21st Century politics. It is widely supported by conservative groups and widely denounced by progressives. In previous centuries active shooters could defend a charge in court by proving the killing was justified by self-defense. In many states today the tide has turned and the burden of proving a justified killing is no longer on the defendant. The defendant may assert it and force the prosecution to disprove it, beyond any reasonable doubt. In the Stand Your Ground era, things are topsy-turvy, as the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland might say.

The argument for Stand Your Ground laws is “the expansion of individual rights for civilians to use deadly force in self-defense outside the home. In most cases, legislation has included removing the duty to retreat anywhere one may legally be, commonly known as stand-your-ground laws. The extent to which these laws affect public health and safety is widely debated in public and policy discourse.”[4]

The argument against Stand Your Ground laws is, “Stand Your Ground laws give people a license to kill, allowing those who shoot others to obtain immunity, even if they started the confrontation and even when they can safely de-escalate the situation by walking away. Stand Your Ground laws are inherently dangerous because they change the nature of gun violence in a state by encouraging escalations of violence and, according to research, do nothing to deter overall crime.”[5]


[1] Coffin v. United States, 156 S. Ct. 394, 1895, U.S. LEXIS 2150, at page 452.

[2] Packer, Herbert L., “Two Models of the Criminal Process.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania. November 1964, Volume 113 (1): 1–68.

[3]  91 NW 801 (1902).

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7958062/

[5] https://everytownresearch.org/report/stand-your-ground-laws-are-a-license-to-kill/

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