The Differences between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case
The American legal system is comprised of two very different types of cases, civil and criminal. Crimes are generally offenses against the state, and are accordingly prosecuted by the state. Civil cases on the other hand, are typically disputes between individuals regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe one another.
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. That means that even though one person might murder another person, 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.
- Criminal offenses and civil offenses are generally different in terms of their punishment. Criminal cases will have jail time as a potential punishment, whereas civil cases generally only result in monetary damages or orders to do or not do something. Note that a criminal case may involve both jail time and monetary punishments in the form of fines.
- The standard of proof is also very different in a criminal case versus a civil case. 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" (which essentially means that it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way). The difference in standards exists because civil liability is considered less blameworthy and because the punishments are less severe.
- 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.
- A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney, and if he or she can't afford one, the state must provide an attorney. A defendant in a civil case is not given an attorney and must pay for one, or else defend him or herself.
- The protections afforded to defendants under criminal law are considerable (such as the protection against illegal searches and seizures under the 4th Amendment). Many of these well known protections are not available to a defendant in a civil case.
In general, because criminal cases have greater consequences - the possibility of jail and even death - criminal cases have many more protections in place and are harder to prove.
The Same Conduct Can Produce 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 OJ 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 was not enough evidence for a jury to decide that OJ 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 OJ Simpson wrongfully caused his wife's death by a "preponderance of the evidence".