The United States legal system can be confusing. Between paperwork, hiring a lawyer, and knowing how to best respond to legal cases, many people often feel overwhelmed. However, one of the most basic elements of the legal system is its two core elements: criminal and civil court. Here are three differences between criminal and civil cases.
1) Who is Bringing the Charges?
In criminal cases, the defendant is tried by a government entity. In most cases, a state brings charges, but in other cases, the US federal government might bring charges in a federal court. In civil cases, individuals or other entities, such as nonprofits or schools, bring charges against the defendant. An alleged criminal act can also bring civil charges. Murder, for example, is a criminal act, and charges are brought by a government agency. Wrongful death, on the other hand, is a civil act that family members can bring against a defendant.
While individuals can't bring criminal charges against a defendant, they still play an important role in some prosecutions. In many cases, prosecutors will decline to press charges if the alleged victim won't help. However, the state can still elect to press charges anyway as one of the roles of the criminal justice system is to prevent criminals from harming the public by punishing those who commit crimes.
2) Potential Punishments
A. Criminal cases can result in a wide array of punishments, including imprisonment and fines paid to the government. Those found guilty might also be placed on probation or have to comply with requirements at the risk of facing imprisonment. Charges are brought either as misdemeanors or felonies, with the felony category being reserved for more serious crimes.
B. In civil cases, defendants are not at risk of imprisonment; in most cases, defendants risk monetary damages to make up for losses incurred by the plaintiff. Courts might also place punitive damages on defendants found guilty, and these fines are meant to deter further damaging acts. If a court finds the defendant acted maliciously or negligently, the defendant is at risk of these extra punishments.
3) Burden of Proof
A. In criminal cases, the burden of proof lies solely with the plaintiff. Defendants are, in the eyes of the court, assumed to be innocent, and the state must present evidence. The phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt" refers to criminal cases, and, although determining what constitutes reasonable doubt can be difficult, it's meant to be an exceedingly high burden. There are a few exceptions to this burden of proof, however. Defendants who claim a homicide was committed in lawful self-defense, for example, typically must prove so in court.
B. In civil cases, courts simply look at the "preponderance of evidence." Some view this as meaning that defendants who have a greater than 50 percent chance of being guilty should be found guilty, although not all ascribe to this view. Other crimes sometimes require the higher standard of "clear and convincing evidence" of guilt. Still, this burden is lower than the burden in criminal court.
In the legal system, even seemingly simple cases often require some degree of legal expertise. However, people navigating the court system can improve their knowledge and understanding by researching various topics. Understanding the difference between civil and criminal cases is a great first step. An experienced personal injury attorney Milwaukee trusts is another excellent resource for questions, especially if one is considering taking legal action.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from Hickey & Turim SC for their insight into the differences between criminal and civil cases.