In any criminal case in Minnesota, state or federal, a prosecuting attorney prepare a charging document (a Complaint or Indictment) accusing a person of a crime. The prosecutor must base this on second-hand information, reported to them by others, usually police officers. The information police officer provide to prosecutors is based upon their investigation into what other people say and other available evidence such as physical evidence. It’s relatively unusual for police officers to have first-hand knowledge of what they are reporting. With so many layers of second-hand information, it’s easy to see how something could go wrong — how an innocent person could be falsely accused.
This in part explains why the person accused begins with the presumption of innocence. The accused is innocent unless the prosecutor can persuade a jury (or judge in court trial) that there is no possible inference consistent with innocence given the evidence in the trial record. The burden of proof is high — beyond any reasonable doubt. That is the core legal defense in every criminal case. The prosecutor has to try to overcome any reasonable doubt about each and every element to the crime charged. The elements of a crime are stated or implied by the criminal statute defining the crime. But all crimes generally include at least the basic elements of:
Identity. If a crime was committed, who did the prohibited act? Was it caused by the accused?
Prohibited Act. Was an act performed? If so, was it prohibited by law?
Criminal Intent. There are two types of criminal intent, specific and general. Specific intent means the actor must have intended to cause the result of the prohibited act. General intent means the actor must have intended to perform the prohibited act, even if not the result of it. There are varying levels of criminal intent required by various criminal statutes. Sometimes, a gross negligence level of intent is enough for criminal liability. An example of this could be Minnesota Criminal Vehicular Operation. But Simple Negligence is not intentional by definition, and so cannot give rise to criminal liability. Sometimes a condition to an intent element of crime is knowledge, as in possession of contraband type crimes. A person cannot be guilty of a possession crime if they had no knowledge that the contraband was located wherever it was found.
Beyond the government’s burden of proof on the elements of the crime charged, there are other types of defenses, including Affirmative Defenses.
Affirmative Defenses. When the burden of production of evidence is on the accused to support a defense, we call that defense an affirmative defense. Once the defense has asserted and offered evidence supporting an affirmative defense, the burden of proof then rests upon the prosecution — to persuade the fact-finder (jury or judge) beyond all reasonable doubt — that the defense should not apply. An example of an affirmative defense is Self-Defense.