Criminal law seeks to punish behavior that society in general views to be harmful or undesirable. In contrast, the civil justice system is concerned with individual parties who want to be compensated for harm or to prevent continuing harm at the hands of another. Activities such as assault and fraud can be addressed in both the civil and criminal arenas. Whether you're a victim or alleged perpetrator, the procedures you navigate are affected by the differing goals of the criminal and civil law systems.
Harm as a Prerequisite
The phrase "no harm, no foul" does not apply in a criminal case. For example, you can be prosecuted for driving while intoxicated even if you didn't hurt anyone else while driving. In contrast, the complaining party in a civil suit normally must have suffered damage, such as injuries from a wreck or the extra costs of buying a product that the seller agreed but failed to deliver. Some civil cases can be brought without someone suffering harm. For example, a government agency can sue to make you bring your building or business in compliance with environmental or safety laws.
Rights as Victim
Even though you're a crime victim, the prosecutor represents the public -- not you. Therefore, the prosecutor controls the case. She decides matters such as whether to:
- charge the defendant and what crime to charge
- offer, negotiate or accept a plea
- proceed to trial
- dismiss the charges
This means a prosecutor doesn't have to dismiss the case even if you request it. In the civil arena, you must get the lawsuit started and you decide how far to take the case -- unless the court dismisses it.
Answering the Charges
You can plead not guilty to a crime by expressly saying so or by remaining silent. So long as you don't plead guilty, you can fight the charges. In most civil cases, you can lose the right to contest the claim against you if you fail to file an answer to the lawsuit within a specified period of time.
Defending With a Lawyer
You're entitled to have a lawyer in both civil and criminal cases. In civil cases, unless your insurance company is paying for the defense, you're responsible for selecting, hiring and paying the attorney. For a criminal case, the court will appoint you a lawyer if you can't afford one. Depending on your state, court-appointed attorneys are not necessarily free. If you're convicted, the court can make you repay the state or county for the lawyer.
Discovering the Opponent's Case
Discovery is the tool box for a party to gather evidence from the opponent and learn the basis, strengths and weaknesses of the opponent's case. Civil litigants have broader rights -- and duties -- in discovery than criminal defendants. The American Bar Association explains that rules for civil cases seek to level the playing field between or among the parties, while criminal procedure seeks to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial. Parties in civil cases usually must reveal information even if it hurts the case -- unless the information is protected from disclosure by, say, the attorney-client privilege. Criminal defendants do not have to do so, but can get from the prosecutors evidence that tends to exonerate them or show that the prosecution witnesses are untrustworthy. Depending on your state, you must disclose to the prosecutor your witnesses, evidence upon which you intend to rely at trial, and whether you claim an alibi -- i.e. you were somewhere else when the crime took place.
Testifying Against Yourself
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says you do not have to make statements that would show you're guilty of a crime. You can invoke this protection in both civil and criminal cases, but there are consequences to doing so in a civil case. Your opponent can argue that your silence speaks volumes about the lack of evidence to support your claim or defense. In fact, a court can strike a claim or defense in a civil case where the party withholds relevant information on the grounds of self-incrimination. In a criminal case, the prosecutor cannot use the fact you said nothing about the case or did not testify to show your guilt.
Trying the Case
Right to a Trial
In most civil cases, you have the right to a trial unless the court decides beforehand that you cannot muster sufficient evidence at trial to overcome a claim or defense. A court can throw out a prosecution where there is not enough evidence that the defendant committed a crime. If you're a criminal defendant, a court can bar you from raising a defense such as self-defense or insanity if you lack any evidence to support it. However, you have an absolute right to a jury trial -- even if the evidence of your guilt is overwhelming.
Burden of Proof
In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime for which you're charged. In contrast, the complainant in a lawsuit need only show that the opponent more likely than not is responsible for the wrongful behavior.
Challenging the Verdict
In a civil case, the losing party -- whether plaintiff or defendant -- can challenge the verdict. However, in a criminal case, the prosecutor cannot appeal or have a not guilty verdict set aside -- even if the proof of guilt seems indisputable or overwhelming. A criminal defendant can appeal a guilty verdict in a trial, but normally cannot appeal after pleading guilty except on the grounds of (depending on your state):
- excessive or unlawful punishment
- illegally obtained evidence
- ineffective assistance of the lawyer
In federal courts, a defendant may plead guilty on condition that a successful appeal will strike the plea.
Making the Victim Whole
Both civil and criminal law offer monetary relief for victims. Whether you can collect depends on whether the defendant has enough money or property to pay. Depending on your state, you can enforce either a civil judgment or criminal restitution order through garnishing a portion of the defendant's wages or having the sheriff seize property. If you're a victim of crime, you may even get the prosecutor to have the criminal's property forfeited.
In both civil and criminal cases, the appealing party must show that the court committed legal error, such as in allowing or excluding evidence, or that there was not enough evidence to support the verdict.
- Lewis and Clark Law School: National Crime Victim Law Institute: What Are the Differences Between the Civil and Criminal Justice System?
- Federal Judicial Center: What the Federal Courts Do: What is the Difference Between a Civil Case and a Criminal Case?
- American Bar Association: Discovery -- Criminal and Civil? There is a Difference
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Enforcement Basic Information
- U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: Speech -- The Advantages of a Dual System: Parallel Streams of Civil and Criminal Enforcement of the U.S. Securities Laws
- Mississippi Courts: Mississippi Uniform Rules of Circuit and County Court Practice
- American Bar Association: Trial Practice: Civil Remedies for Criminal Conduct -- Representing the Crime Victim; David L. Goldberg
- Monroe County, Michigan: Monroe County Office of Prosecuting Attorney: Frequently Asked Questions
- U.S. Department of Justice: Offices of the United States Attorneys: Crime Victims' Rights Act
- Minnesota Judicial Branch: Civil Actions
- New York Courts: New York City Civil Court: Collecting the Judgment
- Missouri Courts: Chapter 33 - Guilty Pleas
- U.S. Courts: Criminal Cases
- Cornell University Law School: Legal Information Institute: Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; Rule 11 -- Pleas
Christopher Raines enjoys sharing his knowledge of business, financial matters and the law. He earned his business administration and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a lawyer since August 1996, Raines has handled cases involving business, consumer and other areas of the law.