The United States legal system is confusing. Between paperwork, hiring a lawyer and knowing how to best respond to legal cases, many people feel overwhelmed. However, one of the most basic elements of the legal system is its two core entities: criminal and civil court. While both operate under state and/or federal guidelines, these two court systems serve very different purposes and be differentiated in a variety of ways. 3 of the major differences include:
1) Charges vs. Suits
In criminal cases, the defendant is tried by a government entity of either state or federal delineation. In civil cases, individuals or other entities — including businesses, nonprofits schools, etc. — file suits against a defendant. A single event may fall into both categories. Murder, for example, is a criminal act, and therefore charges can be brought by a government agency. However, this does not negate a victim’s family from enlisting the help of a wrongful death lawyer and pursuing a wrongful death suit in civil court as a result of their loss.
While individuals can’t bring criminal charges against a defendant, they still may play an important role in some prosecutions. In some cases, a government entity will decline to press charges if the alleged victim doesn’t want to move forward (according to a study done by the CDC, declining to press charges is commonly done in incidents of a domestic nature). However, an individual cannot keep the state or governing entity from pressing charges if it elects to do so, 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
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.
In civil cases, defendants are not at risk of imprisonment; in most cases, defendants risk financial consequences to make up for monetary damages incurred by the plaintiff. Courts might also place financial consequences on the defendant for punitive damages, If a court finds the defendant acted maliciously or negligently.
3) Burden of Proof
In most 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 or governing entity must present evidence to counter that assumption. 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. For example, defendants who claim a lawful self-defense must typically bear the burden of proving it was so in court.
In civil cases, courts simply look at the “preponderance of evidence.” Loosely defined, this refers to the requirement that more than 50% of the evidence presented by the plaintiff proves the negligence and/or liability of the defendant in the case.
In the event of a civil or criminal case, it may be in your best interest to enlist the help of a professional counsel. An attorney may be able to help you determine what kind of case you have, and what your next steps should be. Contact a legal professional, today.
Thanks to our friends and fellow contributors at Cohen and Cohen, P.C., for their additional insight into the difference between civil and criminal defense.
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