The Differences Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case

To understand the distinctions between criminal and civil cases, a foundation knowledge of the American legal system has to be established. In the United States, the judicial system is divided into state and federal court systems and are further divided by levels and types. The federal court sees cases that involve constitutionality of laws, US ambassadors or public ministers, individuals in two different states, disputes between two or more states themselves, admiralty law, and bankruptcy. The state courts see, essentially, all other case types. This includes criminal cases or criminal matters, minor civil cases, probate, contracts, family law, traffic cases, and more. The justice system can be further categorized into municipal courts, trial courts, intermediate courts of appeal, and courts of last resort (the supreme court). Most criminal cases and civil cases start within trial court level, unless the civil dispute is under a certain predetermined monetary value, in which case that case would fall under the municipal courts. With the base knowledge of the court system, the important distinctions between these two types of cases can be further studied and appreciated.

Civil Case: Initiating the Process

In the civil justice system, a case starts with the plaintiff, or person issuing the civil action, filing a complaint, or cause of action, usually for a fee. The court clerk then motions a summons to civil court and the plaintiff serves a copy of the breach of legal duty to the defendant, or person who must defend themselves in court from the allegation of the tort. The defendant can then choose to respond or not respond to the lawsuit. If the defendant ignores the civil lawsuit, the plaintiff can ask the court for a default judgement, and post-judgement action or appeal can be taken. If the defendant does respond to the lawsuit, a process of discovery can be initiated where both litigants must bring evidence, such as identification of witnesses for testimony or copies of documents, towards their cases to each other. This kind of case can be subjected to arbitration or mediation before it makes it to trial. After the discovery process, the typical outcomes include either settlement between the two parties or the case goes to civil trial where judgement is entered. In civil action trials, the court manages all aspects of the case and is involved in all case events. This contrasts criminal courts where they are involved only in portions of the case including pretrial services, initial charges, trial court actions, appeals, post adjudication programs, and probation.  

Criminal Case: Initiating the Process

In the criminal justice system, a “crime” is defined as something that results in harm to persons, property, or public trust. Crimes are also categorized as felonies or misdemeanors. In a criminal case, it is always the government, in coordination with law enforcement agencies, that initiates the criminal trial against the accused individual. Once the case makes it to a courtroom (which may take time as there are many steps before trial itself such as arraignments, plea bargains, bail, etc.) there are many directions that a court can take for providing punishment. Punishment law includes incarceration, or jail time, community supervision or probation, a fine paid to the government, or even execution for serious crimes. Felonies usually will get over one year in prison and can escalate in punishment up to death penalty. Misdemeanors are typically punished using fines, penalties, forfeitures, confinement, or a short stent in jail.

Civil Case: The Trial

There are two types civil trials: one that is before a civil jury, and one the is before only a judge, known as a “bench trial”. A judge will determine what evidence can be presented in court according to the rules of evidence. After all testimonies are made and evidence has been presented, each party is allowed a closing statement before a verdict of innocence or guilt is made. In a bench trial, the judge is the sole person who decides the outcome. In a trial with a jury, the judge will often explain the civil law that this case falls under and the implications it has and will ask the jury to come to a conclusion about whether the defendant is guilty or innocent of the plaintiff’s accusation and the civil liability the defendant has. The jurors can also decide the amount of damages the defendant will have to pay the plaintiff if found guilty, also known as restitution. In the end, it is the responsibility of the plaintiff in the offense position to convince the jury that the defendant broke the civil law through preponderance of the evidence. In a civil suit, this means that the plaintiff must convince the jury with a burden of proof that there is over a 50% chance that the defendant is, in fact, guilty.

Criminal Case: The Trial

Unlike a civil suit, the burden of proof falls under the state or the federal government since it is the government that initiates the indictment. This means that the accused individual is innocent until the criminal prosecution, usually the district representing the people of the state, proves to the jury with preponderance of evidence that the individual is responsible for the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Before the case is taken to a trial jury, a prosecutor will often take the case to a grand jury, which is often seen as a test run for the trial. The grand jury helps the prosecutor decide to file charges against the suspect and helps present reactions and opinions of evidence provided before the trial begins. A trial may be avoided altogether, however, if the defendant pleads guilty at an arraignment hearing. This may also lead to the government dropping some of the criminal charges against the individual. This exchange of pleading guilty and having dropped charges is known as a plea bargain and allows the case to never go to trial. A judge will still determine a sentence for the defendant, often at a later hearing. However, if the defendant does not plea guilty, a trial will ensue to present evidence and testimonies of witnesses to a jury based on the criminal law that was broken. Once the evidence and closing statements have been presented. the jurors determine the verdict of innocence or guilt. It is the judge that has jurisdiction to  determine the sentence if the defendant is guilty. If the jurors do not find the individual guilty, the defendant walks free and cannot be tried again for the same crime, also known as double jeopardy.

Legal Representation

There may be a time in your life when knowing the differences between criminal and civil cases plays a crucial role. It is important to seek proper legal advice and guidance on such matters because, even with many hours of research, the body of law that may govern your particular situation can still be daunting. Seeking a lawyer referral service to begin being represented may be beneficial so that you can start to understand your full rights to legal protections and more. Legal experts will also be able to determine the statute of limitations for your particular case, or the time limitation to bringing certain causes of action to the legal table for trial or hearings. Seek out a reputable lawyer who will understand the implications of your case and who has experience in both criminal law and civil law.

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