The American legal system consists of two different types of cases: civil and criminal. Crimes are typically offenses against the state, and are prosecuted by the state. Civil cases on the other hand, are typically disputes between individuals regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe one another. These cases are tried through civil lawsuits.
Below are the main differences between a criminal case and a civil case:
- Crimes are considered offenses against the state, federal government, or society as a whole. This means that even though one person might assault another person, assault itself is considered an offense to everyone in society. As such, crimes against the state are prosecuted by the state, and the prosecutor (not the victim) represents the state. If it were a civil case, then the aggrieved party would file the case.
- Criminal offenses and civil offenses are generally different in terms of their punishment. Criminal cases carry jail time as a potential punishment, while civil cases generally only result in money damages or orders to do or not do something. A criminal case may result in both jail time and restitution if a victim suffered a monetary loss. There are also fines that accompany criminal convictions.
- The standard of proof varies widely between a criminal case and a civil case. Crimes must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt”, whereas civil cases are proved by lower standards of proof such as “the preponderance of the evidence” (which essentially means that it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way). This difference in standards is due to the fact that civil liability punishment is not nearly as severe as punishment in a criminal case, where a person’s very liberty is at stake.
- Criminal cases almost always allow for a trial by jury. Civil cases do allow juries in some circumstances, but in others will be decided by a judge.
- A defendant in a criminal case is entitled to an attorney even if he or she can’t afford one. A defendant in a civil case is not given an attorney and must pay for one, or else represent himself pro se.
- The protections afforded to defendants under criminal law are vast (such as the protection against illegal searches and seizures under the 4th Amendment and the fifth amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination). Many of these well known protections are not available to a defendant in a civil case.
Because there is a presumption of innocence in criminal cases and because criminal cases have greater consequences – the possibility of jail and even death – criminal cases have broader protections in place to safeguard the rights of the accused and are harder to prove.