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The Difference Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case

Published on January 11th, 2016

Criminal cases and civil cases are the two main types of law cases you hear about in your day-to-day lives. You hear them talked about on television, on the radio, and you read about them in print media. But if you are like most people, you probably don’t have a firm grasp on the difference between the two.

Here is a brief explanation.
Criminal Cases vs. Civil Cases

Criminal law and civil law are very distinct areas of law, each with its own rules and procedures. For this reason, there are some major differences between criminal cases and civil cases.

The 3 most distinct ways in which criminal cases and civil case differ are in:

1. The objective of the case,
2. How the case is initiated, and
3. The outcome if you lose the case.
The Objective of the Case

The objective of a criminal case is to punish a person for committing an act which is against the law. For example, if who are caught stealing, selling drugs or driving under the influence of alcohol you may be tried in a criminal case where you may be sentenced to time in jail and/or to pay a fine.

The objective of a civil case, however, is to provide a venue for individuals and legal entities to seek compensation from you for losses they have sustained as a result of your conduct, or to have you be ordered to cease that conduct.

For example, if a person is injured in an auto accident that you caused to happen, he or she may bring a civil case against you for any medical expenses, lost wages, damage to property, pain and suffering… etc., that were incurred as results of your actions.
How the Case is Initiated

A criminal case is normally initiated by the state after you have been arrested and charged with a crime. It will then be the state prosecutor’s responsibility to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are in fact guilty of the crime for which you have been charged.

A civil case, on the other hand, is initiated by an individual (the plaintiff) and their lawyer(s), by filing a lawsuit against you (the defendant). They are then responsible for proving, to the satisfaction of the court, that they have experienced losses due to your wrongful conduct and that you owe them compensation, and/or should refrain from the conduct in question.

The Outcome if you lose the case

In most cases, when you lose a civil a case, the outcome will be that you are ordered to pay financial compensation to someone who has suffered a loss due to your wrongful conduct, and/or to cease that conduct.

In a criminal case, however, the outcome may also include being sentenced to a period of incarceration. So in addition to being fined or having to pay restitution to the victims of your crime, you may be also be incarcerated for a period days, months or years. And in the worst case, you may even be sentenced to death.

Furthermore, the crime you are charged with will be recorded on your criminal record.
Where the Confusion Lies

What confuses a lot of people is the fact that the state can also be a plaintiff in a civil case. For instance, the state can be a plaintiff in a “class action” lawsuit, where it initiates a lawsuit against you for compensatory damages on behalf of the general public. Likewise, the state can be a defendant in a civil case, whereby by the state is being sued by you for some negligence on its part.

Even more confusing is the fact that the same action can result in both a civil case and a criminal case. For example, if someone dies as a result of your reckless driving, the state may initiate a criminal case against you on the charges of vehicular homicide. Concurrently, the family of the deceased person may bring a civil case against you for wrongful death, on behalf of the person you killed.

So, the real question in determining whether you are involved in a civil case or a criminal case is whether or not you are facing jail time and/or a strike against your criminal record.

If the case is one in which you may simply be required to compensate another financially, or be ordered to refrain from some misconduct, it is likely a civil case. On the other hand, if your freedom is at stake, it is likely criminal case.

Having said that, as soon as you find out that you are involved in the case, civil or criminal, you should contact an experienced attorney at Pioletti Pioletti & Nichols, to preserve your rights under the law and to discuss options for your defense.

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