Leonardo Angiulo: The Limits of the Presumption of Innocence
Monday, January 06, 2014
One example of an explanatory ruling is the U.S. Supreme Court case of Coffin v. United States from 1895 which traces the tradition back to Biblical traditions, Roman law, Medieval Europe and Common Law of England through to U.S. Legal proceedings. With such long-standing traditions the presumption of innocence is a well known and cherished principle. Importantly, however, this presumption only controls in criminal cases and not in civil proceedings. While it is true that some people drawn into administrative matters will feel like they are being persecuted, they are not being prosecuted.
Some people argue that our Government's ability to maintain the health, safety and welfare of residents is of great importance. If you hold that point of view, then you probably see the many regulatory agencies of the federal and state government as a barrier between us and anarchy. There are, however, people who get caught up in the enforcement branches of these agencies. In such cases, without the protection of a presumption in their favor, these people need to put their best evidence before the finder of fact.
One example of an administrative agency that actively limits chaos in our lives is the registry of motor vehicles. Let's say, hypothetically, that you lose your license for a history of poor driving and want to have an administrative hearing to ask for a hardship license. When you appear before a hearings officer at your local Registry of Motor Vehicles Office, the proceedings will be governed by section 9 of chapter 540 of the Codes of Massachusetts Regulation. Because this is a civil proceeding, the applicable code section does not include language affording a citizen the presumption of fitness to hold a license. That's not to say the hearings officer can reach whatever conclusion they please. Regulation 540 CMR 9.05(7) requires them to reach a conclusion based on a preponderance of the credible evidence. And if you have credible evidence of your fitness to operate motor vehicles it's your obligation to present it if you want it to be considered in the hearing officer's deliberations.
Another approachable example are hearings before a fair hearings officer from the Department of Children and Families. As background, if a person is accused of abuse or neglect of a child and a representative of DCF determines the accusation should be supported a person has the right to appeal that finding. The appeal is known as a “fair hearing” and is governed by section 10 of chapter 110 of the Codes of Massachusetts Regulation. In addition, at the fair hearing, section 10.23 specifically states that the burden is on the appellant to show how DCF got it wrong. For many parents this is a difficult one to deal with because a finding of abuse or neglect by DCF can often result in short or long term separation from their children. While this might seem like torture, or like there are imaginary prison walls between mother and child, a fair hearing is a civil proceeding. As such, the presumption of innocence doesn't apply because the end result is not a finding of guilt. Even though being divided from one's children may seem like a sentence.
So what does this mean? One thought is that if you have the burden of proof at any hearing, you need to have something to say and evidence to back it up. Even though the outcome might feel like a punishment, civil proceedings just don't provide you with a presumption of innocence.
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