The Difference Between Civil And Criminal Cases

Some people may remember the O.J. Simpson legal saga from the 1990s.  Many of these same people wonder why he was found not guilty of the crimes. Few people know that, a few years later, another jury heard the same case and reached the opposite conclusion.  Quite a few people get the processes between a civil case and criminal case confused, but they are indeed entirely different.

One answer is the burden of proof, which is how far the party bringing the case must prove their case to the decider of fact – usually the jury.  In all states, the prosecution must prove a criminal defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Different states have different definitions for beyond a reasonable doubt, and some do not define the phrase at all, but the spirit is always roughly the same.  In a few words, the prosecution has an extraordinarily high bar to prove someone is guilty of a crime.

In civil court though, all states require plaintiffs to prove their cases by a preponderance of the evidence.  This definition, “more likely than not,” is the same across the entire United States.  For instance, if you wake up in the morning and the ground is wet, it’s more likely than not that it rained while you were sleeping.

The burden of proof is the largest difference between civil and criminal court, but it’s far from the only one.

The Pre Litigation Process

In civil court, discovery is quite extensive.  Each side has the opportunity to learn the details about the other’s case through:

  •       Oral discovery, such as depositions  and
  •       Written discovery, such as document requests and requests for admission.

Additionally, there are usually lots of substantive and procedural motions in civil court.  As a result, negligence and other civil cases usually involve occasional flurries of activity and lengthy stretches where it seems nothing is happening.

In contrast, discovery in criminal court is quite limited.  Most of the investigation is done by the prosecution, though the Defense has their own ways to obtain evidence.

Resolution

In all cases, the parties resolve usually during settlement negotiations; in criminal cases, this process is called plea bargaining.  However, the settlement rate is substantially lower in negligence cases (about 80 percent) than it is in criminal cases (over 95 percent).  Most negligence cases therefore last longer than criminal cases and require more attorney time.

To ensure your negligence case is handled correctly, contact an attorney quickly.

Thanks to our friends and contributors from Butler Tobin for their insight into civil and criminal differences.