A Complete Guide To Criminal VS Civil Charges

Last Modified: January 22, 2024

Criminal charges and civil charges are two different things. Learn more on how they might affect your situation and case.

What’s the Difference Between a Criminal and a Civil Court Case?

If you seek legal assistance, it is helpful to know that the legal processes differ between a criminal court case and a civil court case. Knowing these differences can help you get the most effective representation for your situation.

What is a Criminal Court Case

Through a system of laws, the government protects all individuals and organizations from serious harm. When a crime is committed against you, it is considered a crime against society and is punished by the state in criminal court.

What is a Civil Court Case

The legal system also protects individuals (like you) and organizations from loss, mostly financial, from anyone who caused the loss through a failure to live up to their legal responsibilities towards you. You can file a claim for this loss through the civil court process.

Criminal vs. Civil Case

An important point to understand is that the two kinds of cases are not mutually exclusive. You can seek legal remedies through both criminal and civil courts for the same offense and even do it simultaneously.

The OJ Simpson trial is a good example. The same behavior led to a criminal murder case as well as a civil case for wrongful death. The outcomes were different for each case, primarily because the standards of proof are different.

In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” You can think of this as “99% guilty.” The jury in the OJ Simpson case felt there was not enough evidence for a guilty verdict.

However, in a civil case, the standard of proof is “preponderance of evidence” meaning the guilt is “probable.” You can think of this as “51% guilty.” The standards for a civil case are, therefore, less stringent than those for a criminal case. In the OJ Simpson civil case, the jury found, through a preponderance of evidence, that he did wrongfully cause his wife’s death. What Are the Key Differences Between a Criminal and a Civil Case?

  • Types of wrongdoing Criminal cases handle crimes such as murder, assault, rape, arson, theft, fraud, human trafficking, trafficking in controlled substances, etc. Civil cases involve personal injury, divorce, medical malpractice, landlord/tenant/housing disputes, child custody, property disputes, money and debts, etc.
  • **Standards of proof Civil cases require only a “preponderance of proof” while criminal cases require “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
  • Rights and protections The Fourth Amendment grants rights and privileges that can be invoked for defendants in a criminal trial – for example, unlawful search and seizure. Plaintiffs in civil trials are not afforded this same protection.
  • Punishments Crimes are divided into two types, felonies, and misdemeanors. Felonies are the more serious type and can result in many years-to-life imprisonments or the death penalty. Misdemeanors carry a penalty of one year or less of jail time.

Civil cases usually involve compensation for personal injuries, business loss, property damage or loss, or injunctions to prevent certain unwanted conduct. The losing party must reimburse the person bringing the lawsuit (the “plaintiff”) whatever amount of loss is determined by the judge. This is called “punitive damages."

Government agencies can also hold hearings for civil cases on welfare benefits, Social Security benefits, discrimination, civil rights, healthcare benefits like Medicare and Medicaid, and traffic violations.

  • Trial processes A civil case is filed by a private party (individual). A criminal case is filed by the state/ government. A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney. If the defendant cannot afford one, the state provides a Public Defender to represent them. A criminal case is tried by a jury, while a civil case is usually handled by a judge.

The purpose of criminal law is to hold perpetrators accountable, punish them appropriately, and deter them from committing similar acts in the future. It is not to restore the lives of victims, and that is where civil law can be used to help individuals recover some or all of their loss.

What is The Court Process for a Criminal Case?

Criminal law looks after public interests and protects society from serious offenses against individuals. The government-defined laws guide legal professionals in their administration of the prosecution or defense of individuals involved in the violation of these laws.

The government hires police and prosecutors, appoints public defenders and judges, and sets rules for court proceedings.

If you are the victim of a crime, your first duty is to report the crime to the police department. It is their duty to investigate your allegation and, if it has merit, to apprehend the person responsible.

If the charge is properly investigated and presented and there is sufficient evidence of guilt, the case is turned over to the government to prosecute. You, as the individual making the complaint, do not prosecute the case in court. That role is provided by either a prosecutor, a district attorney, a county or state attorney who will represent you as the plaintiff in the case.

What is The Court Process for a Civil Case?

Civil law, on the other hand, looks to restore an injustice. If you or an organization you represent has a dispute with another individual or organization over some harm, loss, or injury, you have the responsibility to file a claim with a civil court.

The process is that the party suing (the “plaintiff”) files a “complaint” with the court. This is a document that describes who the defendant is (the party being sued), what the plaintiff wants for restitution, and why he or she feels entitled to this restitution. There is a fee for this document.

The plaintiff also has the court issue a “summons” to the defendant. This is a legal document that does several things. It notifies the defendant that he or she is being sued, for what reason, and tells him or her where the court is where the case will be tried. It also lists the names of parties involved and the name of the plaintiff’s attorney, if one has been chosen.

Both the complaint and the summons are then “served” to the defendant by a process server who must deliver them in person. The defendant then has the responsibility to respond.

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