Improper to Describe Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in Terms of “Every Day” Decisions
July 20th, 2016

In People v. Nguyen (1995) 40 CA4th 28, 35-37, the prosecutor told the jury that people apply the reasonable doubt standard “every day” and it is the same standard people customarily use in deciding whether to change lanes when driving or whether to get married. The court of appeal held that this argument trivialized the reasonable doubt standard.

As the Supreme Court held in People v. Brannon (1873) 47 C 96: “The judgment of a reasonable man in the ordinary affairs of life, however important, is influenced and controlled by the preponderance of evidence. Juries are permitted and instructed to apply the same rule to the determination of civil actions involving rights of property only. But in the decision of a criminal case involving life or liberty, something further is required … There must be in the minds of the jury an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, to the truth of the charge, derived from a comparison and consideration of the evidence.” (See also People v. Johnson (2004) 115 CA4th 1169.)

Accordingly, the Nguyen court concluded: “We strongly disapprove of arguments suggesting the reasonable doubt standard is used in a daily life to decide such questions as whether to change lanes or marry. The argument is improper even when the prosecutor, as here, also states the standard for reasonable doubt is ‘very high’ and tells the jury to read the instructions.” (Nguyen, 40 CA4th at 36; see also People v. Johnson (2004) 119 CA4th 976, 984-86.)

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