Difference Between Civil & Criminal Charges

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While both civil and criminal charges may result in a trial, there are several significant differences between the two. Civil charges are the result of a dispute between individuals or institutions. Criminal charges are the result of laws being broken. There are connections between the two, as a defendant in a criminal trial can sometimes be brought up on civil charges for the same offense.


Charges in criminal cases are related to the specific laws the defendant is accused of breaking and are brought by the government, not the victim. Civil charges are brought by one individual against another or against a company or other institution. Generally, civil lawsuits are aimed at recovering monies thought to be owed to the plaintiff, or financial, or other, compensation for a wrong against the plaintiff. Criminal charges are brought about to punish someone accused of breaking the law.


Both types of cases involve plaintiffs and defendants. In criminal cases the plaintiff is the state or government, also referred to as the prosecution or "the People." In civil cases, both sides may choose to represent themselves but in criminal trials the prosecutor is always a lawyer. If a defendant in a criminal trial cannot afford a lawyer, the state will appoint one.


Most civil disputes are resolved before going to a trial, with both sides agreeing on a settlement. In criminal matters, most defendants will plead guilty in return for a dropping of some charges or a decrease in the sentencing. This is called a plea bargain. If a trial is scheduled in either civil or criminal conflicts, the basic procedure is the same.


One of the main differences in civil and criminal trials is the presence of juries. In many types of civil trials, either side is entitled by Constitutional rights to request a jury. They may waive the right and have only a judge present. Criminal cases of a serious nature will have a jury of 12, although some misdemeanor cases will have a jury of six.


Civil trials with no juries are also known as bench trials. In these situations, the judge decides both the prevailing party and the type and amount of restitution the losing side must make. Verdicts in criminal trials are delivered by the jury and sentencing is decided by the judge. A jury may find the defendant guilty, but it is the judge who decides the punishment.


Appeals may be filed in both situations with some differences. In civil trials, either party may appeal to have a second trial at a higher court. In criminal trials, the defendant may appeal, but usually the prosecution may not due to the concept of double jeopardy. This is the Constitution's prohibition of trying a defendant twice for the same crime.


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