One of the things that makes the American legal system confusing is that we have both criminal charges and civil charges.
Criminal charges are a straightforward part of the legal process. If you break the law, you’re arrested and criminal charges are filed against you. You have the option of pleading guilty to these charges. If you don’t plead guilty, the case goes to trial and a jury will decide if you’re guilty.
Civil charges are more complicated. Civil charges involve the victims of the crime. The civil court provides victims with an opportunity to do two things. First, they can face the person who they believe impacted the quality of their life. The second thing civil charges do is provide the victims with an opportunity to seek financial retribution.
If you’re unlucky enough to be hit with both criminal and civil charges, you’ll quickly notice that the two cases are handled quite differently.
- The punishment in criminal cases usually involves fines/jail time/community service/probation
- The punishment in civil cases is always financial
- There is a different standard of proof in civil and criminal cases
- Defendants in criminal cases have different guaranteed protections
- Juries are only used in very specific civil cases, most of the time it’s the judge who makes the final civil case ruling
One of the things the O.J. Simpson case proved was that even if you’re not found guilty of the crime in a criminal case, you can be found guilty during a civil case. The reason Simpson was found guilty during the civil case even though he’d been found not-guilty during the criminal case is that a different standard of proof is required in the cases.
One of the first things criminal juries are told is that they can only find the defendant guilty if the prosecutor has proven that the defendant committed the crimes “beyond a reasonable doubt”. That means that if there is any question in the jury’s mind that someone else committed the crime, they must find the defendant not guilty. In the O.J Simpson criminal trial, the jury voted not-guilty because there was evidence that suggested someone else could have committed the murders. In his civil case, there was enough evidence to suggest he had.
The “beyond a reasonable doubt” concept disappears in civil cases. In those cases, if the judge (and in rare situations, a jury) looks for a “preponderance of the evidence”. This means that if all the evidence suggests that the defendant committed the crime, they’ll be found guilty of the civil charges.
One of the interesting things about civil cases is that the people who filed the charges against the defendant not only seek financial restitution for actual costs, such as medical bills following a DUI accident but can also seek punitive costs which include pain and suffering.
Considering the extremely high cost of both criminal and civil cases, it’s in your best interest to think twice before you commit a criminal act that could result in you facing both criminal and civil charges.