Winship, in Re

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Winship, in Re

In the case In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S. Ct. 1068, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368 (1970), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt before a juvenile may be adjudicated delinquent for an act that would constitute a crime were the child an adult. Winship expanded the constitutional protections afforded by in re gault, 387 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1428, 18 L. Ed. 2d 527 (1967), in which the Supreme Court ruled that minors accused of delinquent acts must receive notice of any charges pending against them, and be given a reasonable opportunity to defend themselves during a fair hearing in which they enjoy the Right to Counsel, the right not to incriminate themselves, and the right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses.

Twelve-year-old Samuel Winship was charged under the New York Family Court Act (NYFCA) with stealing $112 from a woman's pocketbook, an act that would have constituted the crime of Larceny if Winship had been an adult. At the conclusion of the proceedings against Winship, the family court judge made a finding of delinquency by a preponderance of the evidence, the standard of proof set forth in section 744(b) of the NYFCA. The judge acknowledged on the record that the state had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. As a consequence for his transgression, Winship was placed in a juvenile training facility for a minimum period of eighteen months.

Winship appealed the adjudication of delinquency to the New York Supreme Court (an intermediate court of appeals in New York), where he challenged the constitutionality of the NYFCA. Winship claimed that he was denied due process because the NYFCA required the family court to apply a quantum of proof less stringent than beyond a reasonable doubt. After the court rejected this challenge, Winship appealed the case to the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state of New York), which affirmed the decisions of both lower courts. In the Matter of Samuel W. v. Family Court, 24 N.Y.2d 196, 247 N.E.2d 253, 299 N.Y.S.2d 414 (1969).

The court of appeals relied on the traditional distinction between juvenile and criminal proceedings in explaining its decision to affirm the lower court. State intervention in delinquency matters is traditionally justified under the doctrine of Parens Patriae, a paternalistic theory of juvenile justice in which the government seeks to protect the welfare of minors by providing wayward youth with medical help, counseling, discipline, and other assistance deemed necessary by a court or by social services.

In contrast to the remedial and rehabilitative nature of many juvenile dispositions, criminal sanctions are intended to serve four different purposes: punishment, retribution, deterrence, and confinement. While most criminal proceedings are open to the public, nearly all juvenile proceedings are conducted in private under strict orders of confidentiality. Because adult criminal defendants generally have more at stake than minors accused of delinquency, criminal proceedings involving adults are designed to be more adversarial in nature. Conversely, juvenile proceedings are administered with greater flexibility to meet the needs of each delinquent child.

Based on these distinctions, the court of appeals concluded that the remedial goals of juvenile justice are better served when the guilt or innocence of a minor is determined by a preponderance of the evidence. Application of the reasonable doubt standard in delinquency proceedings, the court of appeals reasoned, would result in a greater number of acquittals. More troubled children would return home without aid from juvenile justice programs, the court surmised, and delinquency problems would exacerbate.

In reversing the New York Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized two points. First, the Court underscored the importance of the reasonable doubt standard. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the Court said, is a standard deeply rooted in the nation's history, and forms an integral part of the fundamental freedoms protected by the Due Process Clause. The Court noted that since colonial times every person accused of wrongdoing in America has been entitled to a Presumption of Innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by the government.

Second, the Court indicated that this standard of proof is not necessarily limited to criminal cases, but may apply in other proceedings in which an accused faces a potential deprivation of life, liberty, or property. Winship faced confinement in a juvenile training facility for a period of up to six years because his detention order was subject to annual extension by the family court until his eighteenth birthday. Ordinarily, the Supreme Court observed, the law reserves such lengthy periods of confinement for adult felony offenders. But when juvenile defendants are exposed to adult-like penal sanctions, the Court held, they must be protected by the same procedural safeguards as adult criminal defendants, including the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Despite the sweeping language of In re Win-ship and In re Gault, juveniles are not always afforded the same protections as adults under the Due Process Clause. For example, in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528, 91 S. Ct. 1976, 29 L. Ed. 2d 647 (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that there is no constitutional right to jury trial in juvenile proceedings. So long as the judge presiding over a juvenile matter is fair and impartial, the Supreme Court said, due process has been provided.

Further readings

Imwinkelried, Edward J. 2002."The Reach of Winship: Invalidating Evidentiary Admissibility Standards that Under-mine the Prosecution's Obligation to Prove the Defendant's Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt." UMKC Law Review 70 (summer).

Paglia, Todd J. 1993. "Misuse of the General Verdict and the Demise of In re Winship." New England Journal on Criminal & Civil Confinement 19 (summer).

Rosenberg, Irene Merker. 1990. "Winship Redux: 1970 to 1990." Texas Law Review 69 (November).

"Winship on Rough Waters: The Erosion of the Reasonable Doubt Standard." 1993. Harvard Law Review 106 (March).


Due Process of Law; Juvenile Law; Preponderance of Evidence.