Say I make a big win at a casino and walk out with a suitcase full of cash*. I decide I want to buy a car with it, so I head down to a car dealership, and buy a car - which I pay for by handing over said suitcase.

The next day the police turn up at my house. Apparently, the car I'm driving was reported stolen by the dealership. I insist that I paid for it; they say I didn't. Which way does the court rule?

In theory, I should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, so they would have to prove that I didn't pay. But it's impossible to prove a negative, so they can't. On the other hand, I can't prove that I did pay - there is no way I can prove that the suitcase full of cash was handed to the dealer, rather than say buried in my back yard, as that is also proving a negative (that I don't still have the money).

So what happens?

This question is not actually about car purchases; that is an illustrative example, so please ignore the unrealistic bits. This question is about how courts handle cases where it is impossible to determine the truth, and both parties have a stake.

  • 2
    You should ask for one of those when you hand over any significant amount of money: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Receipt
    – SJuan76
    Sep 27, 2018 at 11:12
  • @SJuan76 eyeroll no duh. Like I said, ignore the unrealistic bits. Although come to think of it, a receipt isn't actually proof of anything - it's just a bit of paper, which can easily be faked. A signature is harder, but what if they claim it's a forgery? Makes me wonder how anything gets proved! But for this question: Assume there is a perfectly logical, completely convincing reason for having no receipt, please.
    – Benubird
    Sep 27, 2018 at 11:51
  • 2
    The title is prejudicial: "innocent until proven guilty" is a doctrine that only applies to criminal cases. The only reasonable assumption given how you ask the question is that this is a criminal proceeding.
    – user6726
    Sep 27, 2018 at 16:45
  • 1
    @user6726: Well, the other reasonable assumption is that OP does not understand that "innocent until proven guilty" only applies in criminal law :-).
    – sleske
    Sep 28, 2018 at 7:45
  • @sleske That's true, I had assumed that civil cases were still based around trying to prove guilt or innocence, and that "innocent until proven guilty" still applied. It sounds like I haven't understood how civil cases work, which... is kind of the point of the question, really
    – Benubird
    Sep 28, 2018 at 9:00

4 Answers 4


Which way does the court rule?

That depends on which type of trial we are talking about.

There are (at least) two fundamentally different branches of law, with different trials:

  • lawsuits or civil actions (governed by private law or civil law)
  • criminal trial (governed by criminal law)

A lawsuit would happen if the dealership sued you to get their car back. A criminal trial would happen if the public prosecutor decided to accuse you of the crime of stealing the car.

One crucial difference is that the burden of proof is different between the two. A criminal trial requires very firm proof of guilt (this is meant by "innocent until proven guilty"), while in a lawsuit the party with the better arguments prevails. So both types of court would have to examine the evidence and decide whether it meets the required burden of proof.

It is quite possible for there to be a lawsuit and a criminal trial for the same event, and the two can have different outcomes. So for example, if both happened in your case, in the lawsuit the court could decide you did not satisfactorily prove that you bought the car, so you have to give it back, while the (different) court for the criminal trial could decide there isn't sufficient proof you stole it, and acquit you.

A famous example is the O. J. Simpson murder case. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife. He was acquitted of murder in the criminal case, but was found responsible for the murders in a civil trial brought by the victims' relatives.

  • I think it was the parents of her murdered friend, Ron Goldman. He managed to pay nothing, but the Goldman's managed to buy the rights to his memoirs at auction (didn't cost them a penny since the money came out of the money he owed them), and they published it with some slight editorial changes.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 27, 2018 at 19:55
  • @gnasher729: Thanks, I corrected the mention of who sued him.
    – sleske
    Sep 28, 2018 at 7:47

While "innocent until proven guilty" does mean the prosecutor has the burden of proof, the dealer being the lawful owner of the car would be simply taken as a fact, so the prosecutor only has to prove that you took the car or possessed the car. Your necessary strategy is to challenge the presumed fact of ownership. Which is why we have receipts and other paperwork and a jury would not look favorably on your claims of payment without them. Remember, the prosecutor only has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, not eliminate all scenarios. Your claims that you won a massive amount of cash and then paid for a car without a receipt or sales paperwork is a bridge too far for most people, even if its the truth.

Now if you did have paperwork and both sides are claiming the others' is a forgery, well, that's when you have to convince a jury your papers are the genuine ones.

  • I don't think this is the case. The prosecutor has to refute the claim that the car was purchased. It may not take much, but it has to be done. Note that the casino will have records of giving out the cash, which lends some plausibility. Sep 27, 2018 at 16:19

In light of the reference to "innocent until proven guilty" and the police involvement, we have to assume this is a criminal case. You don't identify a specific crime, but I will assume that it is vehicular theft. In which case, the allegation would be that you took and kept the vehicle without permission. Then it is a matter of looking at the facts, which are situation-specific. The prosecution would need to provide positive evidence that you took the vehicle without permission: that could, for example, be via a videotape of you smashing the window of the dealership, taking the key, and driving off. Some number of witnesses might attest that you took the vehicle for a test drive and never came back. In the former scenario, you might provide numerous witnesses providing an alibi which would provide a reasonable doubt as to the validity of the video, though if these guys were provably fellow gang members paid to perjure themselves, their testimony might not provide reasonable doubt. Supposing you have equally valid video counter-evidence plus eyewitnesses, there is stil the fact that you have the car in your possession (your attorney would presumably be arguing that the dealership video wasn't you). That's a puzzle: still, the doubt (that you were the one who stole the car) is reasonable.

The premise that you "just walked off" with the car is sufficiently unrealistic that it's not a very good basis for a hypothetical about reasonable doubt. In light of how car dealerships actually operate, you could not have taken the car without permission. The dealership might still sue you for breach of contract, but then "presumption of innocence" isn't applicable.


The prosecution would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that you stole the car. Facts beyond reasonable doubt are that the car dealer owned the car, and you drove away with it. The car dealer claims that you drove away without permission and without payment. You also have no papers that prove you bought the car.

If I was in the jury, these facts might convince me (incorrectly) that you stole the car beyond reasonable doubt. Your story about winning in the casino would seem like a lame excuse.

If you find any evidence that you won a suitcase full of money at the casino, which should exist, or you just get the croupier to give evidence in court, that could create reasonable doubt.

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