There are two major factions of the United States court system: civil cases and criminal cases. Both take place in courtrooms all across the country, but there are several differences that separate the two.
Civil & Criminal Court Cases: Plaintiff vs. Prosecutor
In a criminal court case, the opposing parties are the prosecutor, often the Assistant District Attorney, and the defendant, represented by a trial lawyer. In a civil court case, however, the opposing parties are the plaintiff and the defendant, both of whom are typically represented by attorneys (except in small claims courts).
Civil & Criminal Court Cases: Guilt vs. Liability
In a criminal court case, the prosecutor must establish the guilt of the defendant, but in a civil court case, the plaintiff must only establish the liability of the defendant. In the former, the defendant is either guilty or not guilty of a crime, while in the latter, the defendant is either liable or not liable for monetary damages suffered by the plaintiff. For example, in a criminal court case, the defendant can be found guilty of assaulting his brother, while in a civil court case, the defendant can be found liable for damaging his brother’s car in an automobile accident.
Civil & Criminal Court Cases: Reasonable Doubt vs. Preponderance of Evidence
In civil court cases, the plaintiff must only win by a preponderance of evidence, which means that the defendant is more than 50% likely to be liable for whatever transpired. For example, if the defendant is accused of criminal mischief, the prosecutor must prove to the jury that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil court case, however, the plaintiff must only prove through evidentiary means and testimony that the defendant is probably liable for the damages.
Civil & Criminal Court Cases: Jury vs. Judge
In criminal court cases, the defendant is always given the option for a trial jury, which means that his case is delivered in front of twelve people who collectively decide whether or not he is guilty. In a civil court case, however, the defendant is not always entitled to a jury trial, and may be assigned to a trial by judge, which means that the officiating judge has the final say.
Civil & Criminal Court Cases: Jail vs. Monetary Damages
In a criminal court case, the sentence can be a fine or jail time – or both – while in a civil court case, the defendant cannot go to jail, but can be forced to pay monetary damages to the plaintiff, or to return property. In a criminal case, however, the fine will not go to the victim, but to the courts.
In some cases, a defendant can be charged both civilly and criminally. Take, for example, the case of O.J. Simpson in 1995. He was acquitted in a criminal court case, but found liable in a civil court case. The two do not have anything to do with one another, and the defendant can still be found liable in a civil proceeding when found not guilty in a criminal trial.