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The Differences Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case

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

Generally speaking, crimes are offenses against the state, even if the immediate harm is done to an individual. Accordingly, they are prosecuted by the state.

On the other hand, civil cases typically involve disputes between parties regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe to one another. These cases are handled through civil lawsuits.

Although there is some overlap between civil and criminal cases, there are several ways in which you can tell the differences 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 the punishments they can bring
  • The standard of proof is also very different in a criminal case versus a civil case
  • Criminal cases almost always allow for a trial by jury
  • A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney
  • The protections afforded to defendants under criminal law are considerable

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, and the prosecutor (not the victim) files the case in court as a representative of the state. If it were a civil case, then the wronged party would file the case.

Differences in Punishment

Civil cases generally only result in monetary damages or orders to do or not do something, known as injunctions. Note that a criminal case may involve both jail time and, in the form of fines, monetary punishments. In general, because criminal cases have greater consequences including the possibility of jail and even death, criminal cases have many more protections in place and are more difficult to prove.

The Standard of Proof

Crimes must generally be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt," whereas civil cases are proved by lower standards of proof, such as "the preponderance of the evidence."

The term, "the preponderance of evidence," refers to how it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way.

The difference in these two standards points to how civil liability is considered less blameworthy and how the punishments are less severe.

What the case may be, in a set of criminal proceedings, is that what is known as "the burden of proof" falls upon the prosecutor.

Under this burden, the defendant has no obligation to prove their innocence. At the same time under this burden, the standard of proof the prosecutor must meet is much higher than in civil cases. It's much higher because the defendant's freedom is at risk and also because the defendant is facing a more severe penalty. After all, criminal convictions, from felonies to 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. That's why it's important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney for legal advice if you've been charged with a crime to evaluate the evidence in your case and to ensure that all of your rights are protected.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

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