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While there is some overlap between criminal and civil cases, there are also some important distinctions between how these two branches of law work.
Here are some questions that help illustrate the differences between criminal and civil cases.
What Type Of Behavior Is Covered By The Law?
Criminal law generally covers illegal actions, including murder and robbery. These can be crimes against people or against a property. Some criminal laws, like laws against drunk driving, may not require a victim for a defendant to be found guilty.
Many civil laws cover torts, which are actions that harm other people. Torts can include wrongful death or conversion of property (taking property that doesn’t belong to you). They can also include car accidents or fraud.
Criminal law and civil law have some overlap when they cover the same types of bad behavior. For example, a defendant may be found guilty of murder in criminal court and later found liable for the wrongful death of the victim in civil court.
Sometimes, a person’s bad behavior isn’t enough to be charged with a crime, but they can still be found liable in a civil case. For example, if you don’t pay your mortgage, the state can’t put you in jail – after all, in the United States, we don’t have debtor’s prisons. However, the bank can file a civil foreclosure lawsuit against you to reclaim the house.
Who Files The Case In Court?
One of the largest differences between criminal and civil cases is the question of who pursues the case in court.
In criminal cases, the state prosecutor’s office files charges against a criminal defendant. The prosecutor is responsible for researching the case and proving their arguments in court. Alleged victims of crimes work with the prosecutor’s office, but it’s not their job to do this work.
It’s also not an alleged victim’s job to decide whether to charge someone with a crime. Prosecutors are responsible for making this decision and can charge a defendant even if an alleged victim doesn’t want them to. Similarly, prosecutors may decide not to file charges if they don’t think they can win a case, even if the alleged victim wants to proceed.
In civil cases, a private individual is a plaintiff. When the plaintiff files a lawsuit, they must prove their case against the defendant. Sometimes plaintiffs hire private detectives or accountants to help gather evidence to prove their case against the defendant. Civil cases allow alleged victims to make decisions about whether to file a case against the defendant and when to file a case against the defendant.
What’s The Standard Of Proof?
Another difference between criminal and civil cases is the standard of proof needed to win a case.
Criminal cases have high standards of proof. The prosecutor must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. If a jury has any doubts about the case, they can find the defendant not guilty. This is a high standard to meet, but it balances the high stakes involved. People who are convicted of crimes can spend years of their life behind bars, so the jury needs to be sure of their guilt before convicting them.
In a civil case, the standard of proof is much lower. For most civil cases in California, plaintiffs need to by a “preponderance of the evidence.” If the plaintiff can prove their case is at least 50% likely to be true, the judge or jury can find the defendant liable.
Some civil cases, such as fraud cases, require a higher standard of proof. In fraud cases, the plaintiff has to meet the “clear and convincing evidence” standard. This means that the plaintiff’s case has to be highly and substantially likely to be true. This is a higher standard of proof than preponderance of the evidence.
The different requirements for the standard of proof in criminal and civil law cases mean it’s possible for the defendant to be not guilty but also civilly liable for an equivalent injury. Such was the case in the O.J. Simpson trial, where the football star was found not guilty of murder but was later found liable for wrongful death.
What’s The Outcome Of The Trial?
Finally, criminal and civil law have different ultimate results.
In criminal trials, if the defendant is guilty, the defendant may be required to pay a fine, serve a jail sentence, or be placed on parole. These penalties deter people from committing crimes and punish people who do.
In civil cases, a plaintiff usually wins money from the defendant. Paying money in civil cases isn’t a way to get rich. Instead, this money will make the plaintiff whole again after being injured by the defendant.
For example, a drunk driver hits someone’s car hard enough for the airbags to go off. The victim needs to get treatment at the local hospital for whiplash and be monitored for a concussion, so they need to take time off from work. They also have nightmares after the car crash and are anxious about driving.
The driver is convicted of driving while intoxicated. They have to spend time in jail and pay a fine. However, the victim still has to buy a new car, pay for hospital bills, and deal with lasting trauma. A civil suit against the driver lets the victim recover their expenses, including their lost wages. It also enables the victim to receive money to compensate for their pain and suffering.
Even though criminal and civil cases have different results, these two areas of law work together to restore justice.
Other Types Of Civil Remedies
Sometimes, the plaintiff wants something more than money from the defendant. In some civil cases, the plaintiff can ask the court to require the defendant to:
Return property the defendant wrongfully took,
Do something they agreed to, such as selling the plaintiff a specific house, or
Stop doing something like badmouthing the plaintiff’s competing business online.
Even though these remedies are available, most civil cases usually only involve money.
Consulting With A Criminal Defense Lawyer
While criminal and civil cases often cover the same behavior, there are some critical differences between them. Criminal cases are brought by a state prosecutor, while private citizens bring civil cases. The prosecutor in a criminal case has a high standard of proof, while the plaintiff in a civil case only needs to prove their position is more likely than not correct. Finally, penalties in criminal cases include jail time, while civil cases can only result in monetary damages.