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Burden of Proof - Presumptions As Burden-shifting Devices

court instruction rule issue

Closely related to rules that regulate the burden of proof are rules of law that establish presumptions. These rules come in many variations, but they all instruct the fact finder to infer one fact from evidence that directly proves some other fact.

The Supreme Court has recognized that some forms of presumptions shift the burden of proof to the defendant in an unconstitutional manner. In Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510 (1979), the Court found constitutional error in an instruction that "the law presumes that a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts" (p. 513). That instruction, in a prosecution for "deliberate homicide," shifted to the defendant the burden of proving he did not intend to cause death.

By contrast, in County Court v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140 (1979), the Court upheld an instruction that "upon proof of the presence of the machine gun and the hand weapons, you may infer and draw a conclusion that such prohibited weapon was possessed by each of the defendants who occupied the automobile at the time when such instruments were found" (p. 161, n. 20). That instruction, in a prosecution for criminal possession of a weapon, was held to be merely permissive and not burden-shifting, because it left the jury free to credit or reject the inference.

From these and earlier cases, several principles emerge. If the reasonable doubt rule applies to an issue, then the rule cannot constitutionally be circumvented by a presumption. Both the issue of intent in Sandstrom and the issue of possession in County Court were clearly subject to the reasonable doubt rule. For such issues, there can be no mandatory presumptions, even if they are rebuttable, because such presumptions are burden-shifting. The state may, however, use presumptions that merely authorize a permissible inference or invite the fact finder to consider it.

Neither Sandstrom nor County Court dealt with issues outside the scope of the reasonable doubt rule. For such issues there can be no constitutional objection to the burden-shifting character of a presumption, although the Constitution requires that any presumption, whether burden-shifting or not, have some rational basis.

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