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What the government has to prove to convict

Many people ask me what the prosecutor has to prove to have the jury convict them of a crime. At a general level, the answer is pretty straightforward – the prosecutor has to prove each and every element of the charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

By way of example, consider a conspiracy charge. The elements of conspiracy, at least under federal law, are (1) an agreement (2) between two or more people (3) to do something criminal, and (4) an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy by at least one coconspirator. The prosecutor has to prove, then, beyond a reasonable doubt, each of these elements.

Prosecutors Do Not Need to Oversell

And, really, that’s it.

It doesn’t matter if the agreement wasn’t in writing. It doesn’t matter if any particular coconspirator didn’t realize that the subject of the agreement was a crime. It doesn’t matter if the person being charged is just a minor player. If the government can prove the elements of a conspiracy, that’s enough for a jury to find someone charged with that crime guilty.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

Sometimes I find that folks are a little mistaken about what the government has to prove. In a drug possession case, for example, the government does not have to prove that a person is physically holding drugs, or has them on his person. Rather, the government can show that the person had constructive possession – that is, the person was in control of the drugs even though he didn’t immediately have physical control.

The government doesn’t have to prove that the crime was committed well, or with bad motives, or with knowledge that the conduct was illegal.

Whether you’re in Maryland, Washington, DC, or Hawaii, the government’s only burden is to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the elements of the offense.

Of course, whether the government can prove all of the elements is not always so straightforward.

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