The American legal system addresses the wrongdoings that people commit with two different types of cases, civil and criminal. Crimes are generally offenses against the state (even if the immediate harm is done to an individual), and are accordingly prosecuted by the state. Civil cases on the other hand, typically involve disputes between individuals regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe to one another. These cases are adjudicated through civil lawsuits. Although there is some overlap, there are several ways in which you can tell the differences between a criminal case and a civil case.
Criminal Case and Civil Case Distinctions
Here are some of the key differences between a criminal case and a civil case:
Crimes are Offenses Against the State
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.
Differences in Punishment
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.
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 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" (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.
The Right to an Attorney
A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney, and if they 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.
Defendant's Rights and Protection
The protections afforded to defendants under criminal law are considerable (such as the protection against illegal searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment). Many of these well known protections are not available to a defendant in a civil case.
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".
An Attorney can Help You With the Differences Between Criminal and Civil Cases
As noted, 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 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.