Some Differences Between Civil and Criminal Law

sentencing guidelinesThere are distinct differences between a Civil Trial and Criminal Proceedings, yet there are times when they overlap, and the differences are not so clear.

For starters, the burden of proof is higher when it comes to testimony and evidence in criminal cases. Proceedings are more formal. A flamboyant attorney can get away with theatrics in a civil case that would get them shackled in a criminal trial.

Judges, counselors, clerks and courtroom guards become more serious and stringent in their conduct the further up the food chain one goes in the criminal court system. Even the lower courts, like the local magistrate, expect a level of professionalism and respect that only increases in city, county, state and federal courts.

One famous example of where the burden of proof is different between civil and criminal trials is the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Simpson, a former pro football player and star of movies and television, was charged with murdering his wife, Nicole, and her lover, Ron Goldman.

The case was highly publicized, becoming a media circus, and was eventually lampooned by everyone from pundits and comedians to shows like, “South Park”.

Simpson was found not guilty by a jury in his criminal trial, but his troubles weren’t over yet.

The families of his victims brought wrongful death suits — civil suits– against him and won sizable financial judgements that left Simpson broke.

The burden of proof was not met in the criminal trial, but the evidence was enough to win a judgement in the civil trial. It is important to note that despite the pain of paying a large civil judgement, the penalties are also more severe in a murder trial, up to forfeiture of life itself. That is one important reason the burden of proof is so much higher in criminal cases, especially where loss of life is concerned– there is no chance anyone will be executed as a result of the verdict in a civil trial.

But that kind of media circus rarely happens in the vast majority of criminal cases, and civil suits, although they certainly occur, are a much tougher sell if the person being sued isn’t rich and famous… or at least rich.

That’s another big difference: Civil actions are predicated on the notion that the person or persons being sued have the means to actually pay.

Sometimes there are cases that blur the line between the two. In a case of property damage, for example, there almost always has to be malicious intent to make it criminal. It’s the difference between breaking a window playing catch and intentionally throwing a brick through the same window. In both instances, the result is property damage, but the malicious intent of throwing the brick makes it criminal.

In criminal cases, although there is sometimes ‘restitution’ factored into a sentence, it’s hard for a poor person to pay their fines, let alone restitution. Indeed many people accused of crimes cannot even afford to hire an attorney and use public defenders.

Winning a civil suit can be quite lucrative for a law firm– no doubt about it– especially when insurance companies are involved. But the payoff comes at the end, and the decision to take the case is based on the likelihood of victory. Very often, settlements can be reached before ever going before a Judge in civil cases, thus enhancing the prospects for a relatively easy payoff for a law firm in civil actions.

I have a case where the person who brought the charges of property damage clearly had enough of a valid complaint for the police to arrest my client, but has since demonstrated they have a financial goal in mind that is more of a civil matter. My client, on the other hand, had absolutely no malicious intent and even offered to repair the damage in good faith. The individual pressing charges refused, and instead is asking for what is an outrageous sum of money to make the repairs themselves– probably ten times the amount needed.

If they are hoping for some kind of pay day to be handed down by a Judge in a criminal case, I believe they will be very disappointed. And if they attempt to file a civil suit, they will most likely be unable to find an attorney willing to take the case. Despite the fact that it’s a sizable amount of money they seek, it’s not very much in the world of civil suits. It’s not worth it.

Someone seeking a financial windfall is unlikely to find it in the criminal court system. And, even the best attorney practicing criminal law isn’t going to make millions of dollars on any case– unless they happen to have a rich and famous client accused of murdering their spouse.

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