Maryland Prosecutors Try to Jail Acquitted Man with Probation Violation

A lower burden of proof for accused probation and parole violators makes it likely one Maryland man will serve hard time despite being acquitted for the crime.

Acquitted but Not Free

In late April of this year, Edward Stanley Stewart III thought his nightmare was over. The Charles County man had been accused of raping a woman in her car after knocking her unconscious as she was leaving work in 2009. A jury acquitted him of the charge because the prosecution was unable to prove that Stewart was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Although the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment prevents trying an individual twice for the same crime, the state is still after Stewart, seeking to incarcerate him by its only other means, a probation violation.

In 2008, Stewart entered an Alford plea to charges of molesting a young girl at a barbecue. An Alford plea is not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement that the prosecution most likely has enough evidence to secure a conviction anyway.

As a result of the plea, Stewart was only required to serve one year of his 10 year sentence and was placed on supervised probation for five years.

The probation violation hearing could carry serious consequences for the Charles County man. If the judge determines Stewart violated his probation, Stewart may have to return to prison to serve the remaining nine years of his sentence.

Different Standards of Proof

Some may wonder why it would be easier to convict Stewart of a probation violation when he was acquitted of the underlying crime. The answer has to do with the differing standards of proof that apply. Depending on where the defendant is in the legal process, there are two separate burdens of proof: beyond a reasonable doubt and by a preponderance of the evidence.

For an accused defendant at trial, the prosecution must prove at trial that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The reasonable doubt standard requires the jury to be satisfied that there is enough evidence against a defendant to erase any potential doubt about his or her guilt. In the example of Stewart, the jury could not be certain that he raped the woman.

According to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires the prosecution to prove every element of the crime and to convince a jury of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. While this high standard could result in a guilty man being set free, the risk is deemed necessary to prevent the wrongful imprisonment of innocent individuals.

The burden of proof for trials does not apply to probation violation hearings. Although due process protections still apply, the bar is set far lower for individuals facing probation violations. In Maryland, the court is responsible only for evaluating the probability that the defendant is guilty of violating the terms of their probation.

These hearings require the state to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the terms of the probation were violated. This lower standard of proof means that the state need only show that it is more likely than not that the individual violated the terms of his or her probation.

In Stewart's case, this means that the state will be required to try and convince the judge that there is a 51 percent chance that Stewart raped the woman, and that likelihood alone is sufficient to find him guilty of failing to remain law abiding during his probation.

People who are convicted of violating their probation do not stand on the same ground as others. Their freedom is conditional on certain terms being met.

While some jurisdictions view the preponderance of the evidence standard as a fair balance of state interests in public safety and the probationer's interest in due process, other courts have even reasoned that judges would be less likely to grant probation if a higher standard of proof were required.

The Problem with the Preponderance of the Evidence Standard

Legal scholars have criticized this low burden of proof for several reasons. The most significant argument is for the probationer's liberty rights. A 2003 article for The American Journal of Criminal Law refuted arguments that suggest an accused violator has a diminished interest in freedom and would not suffer significantly from having his or her probation revoked. The article asserted the probationer was just as vested because the court had granted them probation after weighing the likelihood of rehabilitation, the defendant's criminal history, the type of crime involved as well as the individual's personal traits.

According to scholars, there is another danger posed by this standard is the likelihood that these revocation hearings will be used as surrogate trials for the new offense. Revocations resulting in significant prison time will often eliminate the state's need to use resources for a trial on the new charges. Because of this danger, the American Bar Association recommends the "clear and convincing" burden of proof, which is an intermediate standard requiring the state to show a high likelihood that the accused committed the underlying act.

This intermediate standard provides a more balanced approach that still allows the state to protect the public's interest with a lower burden of proof while preserving the liberty interests of those accused.

Aggressive Sex Crime Defense

Stewart's predicament is just one of the ways a sexual-offense conviction can haunt an individual. The relative ease with which freedom can be taken from anyone on probation or parole makes it essential for anyone facing charges for any type of sex offense to retain an experienced sex crimes defense attorney.

In addition to the awful prospect of registering as a sex offender, a sex crimes conviction could result in extensive prison time. If you or a loved one has been charged with rape or any other sex crime, it is important you hire a lawyer capable of staging an aggressive defense on your behalf as soon as possible.