Maybe you’ve heard the term "prima facie case" used during a TV show or movie, but what does it mean? It’s not just decorative legalese to impress the uninitiated. It is an early and essential part of every legal action and has particular significance in criminal cases.
The term translates from Latin as, essentially, the case at first sight. As that phrase implies, it is a way to evaluate a case at an initial stage to see if there is any support for bringing it to trial. A party with the burden of proof presents a prima facie case when the party presents enough evidence to support a verdict in the party’s favor, assuming the opposing party does not rebut or disprove it. This means that the party with the burden of proof has shown that he or she can meet that burden as to each element of his or her case. Where a party with the burden of proof cannot present a prima facie case, the opposing party may move for a verdict in the opposing party’s favor because the other party cannot possibly win.
Successfully presenting a prima facie case does not mean that a party wins. The opposing party then has the opportunity to offer evidence that contradicts (rebuts) the other party’s prima facie case. The party with the burden of proof then has the opportunity to attack the rebuttal evidence.
The prosecution in a criminal case carries the burden of proof (with the exception of affirmative defenses, which the defendant must prove). This means that the prosecution has to present a prima facie case that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. If the prosecution cannot present evidence supporting each element (part) of a crime, the defendant must be acquitted (even without having presented any evidence).
Say a prosecutor charged a defendant with burglary. The prosecution must present evidence that the defendant entered the premises without authorization. If the prosecution can only show that the defendant was found sometime after the burglary in possession of items stolen from the premises, this evidence alone will not support a burglary charge. In fact, the defendant wouldn't need to offer any evidence but could request an acquittal based on the prosecution’s failure to make out a prima facie case of burglary.
But, where a prosecutor has evidence of the defendant’s presence within the premises, such as the testimony of an eyewitness, the prosecution has satisfied the requirements of a prima facie case as to that element of the crime. Even a defendant who has evidence that an eyewitness was mistaken cannot immediately move for a verdict but must present that evidence in rebuttal.
A prima facie case is an early screen for a court to determine whether the prosecution can go forward to try the defendant fully for the crime. As such, the standard of proof that the prosecution must satisfy at the prima facie case stage is lower than that for proof that the defendant is guilty.
In order to establish a prima facie case, a prosecutor need only offer credible evidence in support of each element of a crime. By contrast, a prosecutor must prove defendant’s guilt as to each element beyond a reasonable doubt to win a conviction.
So, even if a prosecutor can present enough evidence to establish a prima facie case as to all elements of a crime, the prosecution must nevertheless still prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a constitutional requirement.
If a prosecutor cannot establish a prima facie case, that almost certainly means she did not have probable cause to support the arrest of the defendant. That, in turn, means that the charges would be dismissed even before getting to the stage of the prosecution offering her prima facie case. As a result, the prosecution in most criminal trials has no difficulty establishing a prima facie case because the defendant would have already been released otherwise.
The defendant has the opportunity to offer evidence disputing each element of the crime that the prosecution has established in its prima facie case. And, the prosecution must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt, so the defendant’s main goal is usually just to cast doubt upon the prosecution's proof. If the defendant succeeds in doing so, he should be acquitted.
If a person charged with a crime can challenge the charge early and on the inadequacies of the prima facie case (or, better yet, the grounds for arrest), that person can save time and money (and avoid a potential criminal penalty). If you have questions about the prima facie case of any crime, consult a lawyer with experience in criminal defense law. Sometimes the best defense is an early attack on the offense.