Two different types of cases are tried in the American legal system.
Crimes such as murder, grand theft, assault and battery, are considered offenses against the state; therefore, the state or the federal government prosecutes individuals or groups they hold responsible for such crimes.
A civil case usually consists of a dispute between two parties, concerning the legal responsibilities and obligations they make with one another. Failing to live up to an agreed-upon contract is perhaps the most common example of a civil case.
Here are the key differences between a criminal and civil case:
Crime and punishment
Typically, a crime is regarded as an offense not only against a victim or group of victims; it is thought to be harmful to society at large. Depending upon the severity of the crime, the accused person can be tried for a felony or a misdemeanor.
A defendant found guilty in a criminal court of law may face a jail sentence (time served behind bars) and/or be ordered to pay a fine or restitution to the victim of the crime.
In a civil case, there is no threat or possibility of jail time. Punishment comes in the form of monetary damages and sometimes a court order to refrain from certain types of behavior.
A person accused of a crime is legally entitled to representation in court. If the defendant can’t afford an attorney, the state is required to provide one.
In civil court, a defendant has no inherent right to an attorney. In many cases, individuals choose to represent themselves.
Standards of proof
The type of evidence needed to reach a verdict is significantly different between a criminal and a civil case. In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove the defendant “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The standards of proof in a civil case are considerably lower. Judgment is made with respect to “the preponderance of evidence” – meaning, the wrongdoing likely occurred in a way alleged by the plaintiff (the person bringing the case to court).
Judge and jury
In virtually all criminal cases, the ultimate verdict of innocent or guilty is determined by a jury of one’s peers.
Juries are occasionally present in a civil case, but most of the time, a judge alone hands down the final verdict.
Rights and safeguards
Since the stakes are so high in a criminal case, the defendant is entitled to significant protection by the law. Safeguards include:
- The presumption of innocence
- The right to legal representation
- Protection against unlawful searches and seizures
- The right not to incriminate oneself
- The right to confront (in a cross-examination) any witnesses who testify against them
In a civil case, few of these legal safeguards are available to a defendant.
While a criminal case and a civil case are handled very differently, it’s possible that a person can be held liable in both venues, or in one but not the other. Perhaps the most famous example is O.J. Simpson. In his criminal case, the jury believed there was insufficient evidence to convict him of murder. In a later civil case, a jury deciding upon a preponderance of the evidence found him legally responsible for the victims’ deaths.