The American justice system is comprised of two different types of legal cases, civil and criminal. Although criminal and civil cases are treated very differently, most people don’t recognize that the same conduct can result in criminal and civil liabilities. An extremely famous example of this is the OJ Simpson trial, which involved both a murder trial (criminal) and a wrongful death trial (civil). There was not enough evidence for a jury to decide Simpson’s guilt was “beyond a reasonable doubt” in the criminal murder case. However, in the civil trial, the jury found enough evidence to decide that Simpson wrongfully caused his wife’s death.
Crimes Against the People
Crimes are considered offenses against the state, meaning society as a whole. Murder, for example, is considered an offense to society in general. This means that crimes against the state are prosecuted by the state, and the prosecutor (not the victim) files the case as a representative of the state. This is why during a big trial you would hear “The State” or “The People” versus whomever.
Defendants in a criminal case are entitled to an attorney, and if they can’t afford one, the state is required to provide an attorney. In a civil case, a defendant is not provided an attorney and must pay for one or defend themself.
Proving the Crime
The standard of proof in a criminal case versus a civil case is very different. Criminal cases must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but civil cases have lower standard of proof, such as “the preponderance of the evidence.” A civil liability is considered less blameworthy and because the punishments are less severe.
Criminal cases generally always use a trial by jury, as well as some civil cases, but the majority are decided by a judge.
Punishment for Offenses
Criminal and civil offenses are generally different in terms of punishment. Criminal cases have both jail time and monetary fines as a potential punishments, whereas civil cases usually only result in monetary damages or orders to do or not do something.