A criminal case takes place when the government seeks to punish someone for an act that has been classified as a crime by Congress or a state legislature. A civil case, on the other hand, usually involves a dispute over the rights and duties that people and organizations legally owe to each other (for example, business disputes, consumer disputes, and family law matters). Among the important differences between criminal and civil cases are these:
Who controls the case? In a criminal case, a prosecutor, not the victim, institutes and controls the case. The prosecutor may file criminal charges even if the victim doesn’t approve, or may refuse to file criminal charges despite the victim’s desire that criminal charges be filed. This method of initiating the case contrasts with civil cases, where the injured party is the one who decides whether to sue and starts the ball rolling (although if you view the prosecutor as a stand-in for the community injured by a crime, then there’s not much difference).
Civil cases don’t result in jail sentences. People convicted of crimes may pay a fine or be incarcerated or both. People held liable in civil cases may have to pay money damages or give up property, but do not go to jail or prison. (We don’t have debtors’ prisons for those who can’t pay a civil judgment.)
Who pays the lawyers? In criminal cases, government-paid lawyers represent defendants who want but can’t afford an attorney. Parties in civil cases, on the other hand, usually have to represent themselves or pay for their own lawyers.
What’s the burden of proof? In criminal cases, the prosecutor has to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, the plaintiff only has to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is liable for damages.
Who gets a jury? Defendants in criminal cases almost always are entitled to a jury trial. A party to a civil action is entitled to a jury trial in some types of cases, but not in others.
This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.