In re Winship

LOCATION: United States District Court for the Central District of California

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1969-1970)

CITATION: 397 US 358 (1970)
ARGUED: Jan 20, 1970
DECIDED: Mar 31, 1970

Facts of the case

At age twelve, Samuel Winship was arrested and charged as a juvenile delinquent for breaking into a woman's locker and stealing $112 from her pocketbook. The charge also alleged that had Winship's act been done by an adult, it would constitute larceny. Relying on Section 744(b) of the New York Family Court Act, which provided that determinations of juvenile's guilt be based on a preponderance of the evidence, a Family Court found Winship guilty, despite acknowledging that the evidence did not establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Winship's appeal of the court's use of the lower "preponderance of the evidence" burden of proof, was rejected in both the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court and in the New York Court of Appeals before the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Does the requirement that juvenile convictions rest on "preponderance of the evidence" burden of proof, as opposed to that stricter "beyond a reasonable doubt" threshold, violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause?

Media for In re Winship

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 20, 1970 in In re Winship

Warren E. Burger:

Number 778 in the matter of Samuel Winship.

Mrs. Uviller.

Rena K. Uviller:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This case presents the first clear opportunity for the Court to determine one of the implications of a landmark case In re Gault.

It affords on a good record, an opportunity which this Court sought, but was unable to seize most recently in the case of Debacker versus Brainard, an opportunity to determine whether a juvenile, maybe found guilty of a law violation and confined for a number of years unless been proved beyond a reasonable doubt that is on proof less than that customarily considered, the highest measure of proof in criminal proceedings.

In this case, the 12-year old appellate was found guilty of an act of larceny in violation of the New York Penal Law and while he could have been confined for a maximum of five years, had he been an adult, he faced a maximum confinement of six years because he was tried in a juvenile proceeding in the New York Family Court.

The determination that he was guilty of this act of larceny was based expressly upon the provision of the New York statute which provides for such finding by mere preponderance of the evidence.

The issue arose briefly in the following context.

The juvenile was tried in a fact-finding hearing in the Family Court and at that hearing, the complainant, a saleslady testified that one night she was at work and while the store was open for business, she and her coworkers did not believe any other people were in the premises, that they were no costumers present.

However, she became alerted at some point that a lavatory door in the back of the premises was locked and a moment or two later, the door opened and a young boy scooted out of the store and out into the street.

The lady testified that she really had at the most 10 seconds to observe him in profile as he darted by and she saw him from a distance of about 20 feet.

She then proceeded into --

Warren E. Burger:

But if you see someone that you have known before, isn't one second sometimes enough?

Rena K. Uviller:

Yes, Your Honor but in this case really it emerged that she knew this boy previously, not at that time but she was confronted by him in a one-to-one confrontation the next night in the police station.

There is nothing in this record to indicate --

Warren E. Burger:

What difference does it make which time she drew those conclusions?

Rena K. Uviller:

Well, it's unclear from this record and I would suggest that the family court judge, in finding a boy guilty, conceded that there was a reasonable doubt in this case about I don't -- it's unclear as to whether he was -- what the doubt was about that the lady had an opportunity to see him or when she made the determination that this was someone that she had known previously.

Warren E. Burger:

What did she say about having known him previously?

Rena K. Uviller:

She said -- after she saw the boy scoot out she called the police office and she was then called to the police station the next night where she saw the boy and she testified in court that she knew this boy very well.

And she said that she had seen him on many previous occasions when he had come to her store and that she had thrown him out as a matter of fact.

The boy of course and his mother and his uncle all testified that he was not at all -- that he was home and could not possibly have been out of his house that entire evening and testified to an alibi.

He of course also denied that he ever knew this lady before, but I would suggest that it would be inappropriate here for us to again consider what entered into the fact finder's mind when he was making this determination.

He did assess the credibility of various witnesses and had before him the fact that the lady did see him in an inherently suggestive situation the next night and determine that he did have a reasonable doubt about this boy's guilt.

This was quite developed in a record and the judge most candidly noted that he was applying a different standard of proof then would have applied in adult situation and that therefore the finding was not ascertain.

And I would submit that at this point, what we are here to consider is the appropriateness of the measure of proof that the fact finder applied as opposed to what went into his determination that the child was guilty by the standard the he applied.

Potter Stewart:

Certainly, in other words, you suggest it's not up to us here to say, well, we reviewed the evidence and we think he could have found the beyond a reasonable doubt that this young fellow stole the purse.

You say it's none of our --

Rena K. Uviller:

That's right, Mr. Justice Stewart.

I would --

You recall of any case in this Court similar with what the court has said at least without standard in federal case constitutes then?