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Criminal Evidence Law | Suppress Illegal » The “reasonable person”

The “reasonable person”

What is a “reasonable person?”  And in Minnesota criminal law, what is the “reasonable person standard?”

The concept of the “reasonable person” is one of the foundations of Minnesota criminal law.  Of course, historically the term was the “reasonable man.”  But we can use the gender-neutral term now.

Bright line rules vs. reasonable under the circumstances

We can define things, by delineating what they are not.  What are some opposites of this legal standard?

A bight-line rule in criminal law is a clear rule that we cannot cross without exposure to a legal remedy.  And that is the opposite of the reasonable person standard.

An example of a bight line rule could be: “wearing a blue shirt on a Tuesday is a crime punishable by up to 90 days in jail.”

bright line test vs. reasonable person standard - black swan
bright line test vs. reasonable person standard

Examples of the reasonable person standard:

1. Simple negligence

Though rarely relevant in criminal law, simple negligence is the most common basis for civil liability under tort law.  The legal elements of simple negligence include: duty, breach of that duty, damages caused by that breach, and a proximate cause connection between the breach of duty and the damage.  The reasonable person standard is part of the “duty” element.  Could a “reasonable person” act in the way this person acted?  We have a duty to act reasonably when it comes to the safety of others.  If we “breach” or break that duty, we might be civilly liable for money damages, for example.

2. Gross negligence

Criminal law principles require “criminal intent” as one of the elements of a crime.  This means a person intentionally does a “prohibited act.”  And we generally consider the lowest level of criminal intent to be “gross negligence.”  The word “gross” means “big.”  So while simple negligence could be “a mistake, but completely unintentional;” gross negligence would be an intentional disregard for the safety of others.  We must have awareness of the risk, and the risk must be high risk, however.

3. Criminal intent, generally

In criminal law, criminal intent can range from gross negligence on the low end to premeditated first degree murder on the high end.  But a fundamental problem is how to know a person’s intent.  And should the law hinge on a person subjective intent?  We cannot read minds, in the present or in the past tense.  Even if we could, what about a sincerely held belief, which is unreasonable or delusional?  The solution is that we try to determine the person’s intent “objectively,” e.g. using evidence to make reasonable inferences about the person’s intent.  However, we do so using the “reasonable person” standard.”

4. Affirmative defenses, such as self-defense

When a jury considers evidence in a self-defense case, they should try to determine the reasonableness of defendant’s use of force under the circumstances, using the reasonable person standard.  In other words, compare what the defendant did under the circumstances, with what the “reasonable person” would do in those same circumstances.  

Reasonable under the circumstances

What is reasonable under the circumstances is the opposite of a bright-line standard.  After all, what is reasonable depends upon the circumstances – all of the circumstances.

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reasonable person: point of view

Point of view

And the reasonable person standard asks us to look through the eyes of the defendant, and at the circumstances as the person on trial would have reasonable perceived them at the time.

Criminal law does not seek to punish people for unintentional acts.  So, in every criminal case, the evidence of intent must be viewed from the point of view of the person on trial.  Other points of view – those of an injured party, a police officer, a witness – don’t matter for this purpose.

At the time

Hindsight bias is a human, cognitive bias where our minds trick us into believing that what we know now has happened, should have been apparent or predictable before happening.   Psychologists have studied, proven and mapped this bias.  But long before that, the law developed the reasonable person standard, urging us to look through the eyes of the defendant, at the circumstances apparent to him or her, at the time.

An objective standard

The reasonable person standard is “objective,” in the sense that we attempt to determine what would be reasonable to do under the circumstances that person could perceive at the time – what pretty much any average person would do.  So the standard is not subjective.  Though evidence of the person’s subjective perception would be relevant, if that subjective view was “unreasonable” the jury could disregard.

A standard

The reasonable person standard is a “standard” because we use it as a point of comparison.  We use it as a benchmark to compare to what people did.

Are you a reasonable person? Most would say, “yes, I am.” But we also know that even a “below average” person can still within the “reasonable person” range. Reasonable is not perfection.

Caselaw and statutes

This standard comes mainly from judges’ case opinions. These judicial writings use the term (or the equivalent, “reasonable man”) going back hundreds of years. And as a result the term frequently appears in jury instructions. The term now also appears in some Minnesota Statutes, for example: Minn. Stat Sec. 609.746 Interference with Privacy.

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