What Makes a Case a Criminal Case?

There are two fundamentally different types of court cases -- criminal and civil. Here's how to tell the difference.

There are two fundamentally different types of court cases -- criminal and civil. A criminal case arises when the government seeks to punish an individual for an act that has been classified as a crime by Congress or a state legislature. A civil case, on the other hand, usually has to do with a dispute over the rights and duties that individuals and organizations legally owe to each other. Among the important differences between criminal and civil cases are these:

  • In a criminal case a prosecutor, not the crime victim, initiates and controls the case. The prosecutor may file criminal charges even if the victim doesn't approve, or refuse to file criminal charges despite the victim's desire that criminal charges be filed. This method of beginning the case contrasts with civil cases where the injured party is the one who 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.

  • A person convicted of a crime may pay a fine or be incarcerated or both. People who are held responsible 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.)

  • 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. (Juvenile court cases and cases involving civil contempt of court where jail is a possibility, are exceptions to this general rule.)

  • In criminal cases, the prosecutor has to prove a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." In a civil case, the plaintiff has to show only by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more than 50%) that the defendant is liable for damages.

  • Defendants in criminal cases are almost always 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.

  • Defendants in civil cases may be jailed for contempt, as happened to Susan McDougal in the Whitewater case.

Sometimes the same conduct may violate both criminal and civil laws. A defendant whose actions violate both criminal and civil rules may be criminally prosecuted by the state and civilly sued by a victim for monetary damages. For instance, in 1995 O. J. Simpson was prosecuted for murder and found not guilty. In an entirely separate case, Simpson was also sued civilly for "wrongful death" by the victims' families. At the close of the civil case, in 1997, Simpson was found "liable" for (the civil equivalent to guilty meaning "responsible" for) the victims' deaths and ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages.

Copyright 2004 Nolo