The Differences Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case

Civil cases generally only result in monetary damages or orders to do or not do something, known as injunctions. A criminal case may involve both jail time and monetary punishment.

The American justice system addresses the wrongdoings that people commit with two different types of cases: civil and criminal.

Generally speaking, criminal cases are offenses against the state, even if immediate harm is done to an individual. Accordingly, they are prosecuted by the state in a criminal court.

On the other hand, civil cases typically involve disputes between parties regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe to one another. In general, family law disputes and personal injury cases are civil cases. These cases are handled through civil lawsuits that are prosecuted in civil court.

Although there is some overlap between civil and criminal cases, there are several ways in which you can tell the difference between a criminal case and a civil case.

Criminal Case vs. Civil Case: Distinctions

Here are some of the key differences between a criminal case and a civil case:

  • Crimes are considered offenses against the state, or society as a whole
  • Criminal offenses and civil offenses are generally different in terms of punishment
  • The standard of proof is very different in a criminal case versus a civil case
  • Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a trial by jury
  • Defendants in a criminal case are entitled to an attorney and will be assigned a public defender if they cannot afford one
  • More protections are afforded to defendants in a criminal trial

Crimes are Offenses Against the State

Even though one person might murder a particular person, the murder itself is considered an offense to everyone in society. Accordingly, crimes against the state are prosecuted by the state. The prosecutor, which is generally the district attorney or city attorney, files the case in court as a representative of the state. If it is a civil claim, then a private party files the case.

Differences in Punishment

 Because criminal cases have greater consequences, including the possibility of jail and even the death penalty, criminal cases have many more protections in place and have a higher standard of proof.

The Standard of Proof

Everyone accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent until they are proven guilty. In general, crimes must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas civil claims are proven by lower standards of proof, such as the preponderance of the evidence.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt" means the prosecution has provided evidence that proves that there is no other reasonable explanation outside of the defendant's guilt.

“Preponderance of the evidence" means it is more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way.

The prosecutor in a criminal proceeding has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is known as the burden of proof.

Under this burden, the defendant has no obligation to prove their innocence. The standard of proof the prosecutor must meet is much higher than in a civil case. After all, criminal convictions, such as felonies and misdemeanors, tend to carry heavier consequences for a defendant than civil penalties do in civil suits.

Jury Trials

Criminal cases almost always allow for a trial by jury. Civil cases do allow juries in some instances, but many civil cases will be decided by a judge alone in what is referred to as a bench trial.

The Right to an Attorney

A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney. If they can't afford one, the state must provide an attorney. Defendants in a civil case don't have the right to an attorney. If they can't afford one, they'll have to represent themselves.

Defendant's Rights and Protections

The protections afforded to defendants under criminal law are considerable. An example is the protection against illegal searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Many of these well-known protections aren't available to a defendant in a civil case.

The Same Conduct Can Result in Civil and Criminal Liability

Although criminal and civil cases are treated very differently, many people often fail to recognize that the same conduct can result in both criminal and civil liability. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is the O.J. Simpson trial. The same conduct led to a murder trial (criminal) and a wrongful death trial (civil).

In part, because of the different standards of proof, there wasn't enough evidence for a jury to decide that O.J. Simpson was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in the criminal murder case. In the civil trial, however, the jury found enough evidence to conclude that O.J. Simpson wrongfully caused his wife's death by a preponderance of the evidence.

Get Legal Help to Better Understand Criminal Cases vs. Civil Cases

There are times when you can be exposed to both criminal and civil liability for the same act. However, only criminal charges can result in a prison sentence. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney for legal advice if you've been charged with a crime to evaluate your case and to ensure that all of your rights are protected.

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