What is the difference between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case?

In a criminal case you are facing jail time, in a civil case you generally are not facing jail time.

In a criminal case it's the State vs. You, in a civil case its generally a person vs another person or a person vs a company.

In criminal cases the accused doesn't have to prove a thing, in a civil case the person bringing the lawsuit has to prove their case.

There are alot of differences between a civil case and a criminal case.  Each one of these is an entirely different animal with some of the same spots.  Some of the rules are the same and some are different.  But the easiest way to tell them apart is ask yourself what's on the line if I lose?  If you lose a criminal case you are facing going to jail, if you lose a civil case you might find yourself owing money to someone.

People get criminal cases confused with civil cases all the time, especially when the crime involves a victim.  Defendants in criminal cases will often say, "My wife is the victim in this case, she doesn't want the case to go forward, can't she just drop it?" Defendants often think it is the, "victim vs. the defendant."  That just simply isn't true.  In a criminal case, the victim isn't the one pursuing the charge it's the State that is pursuing the charge.  When a criminal act occurs the State takes up the burden of pursuing the defendant.  Only the State has the power to try to convict the defendant of a criminal act.

The opposite is true for civil cases. In a civil case, the person bringing the lawsuit feels that they have been wronged by the defendant.  The person bringing the lawsuit has the power to dismiss the case or stop pursuing the case at anytime and just drop the lawsuit.  The defendant in a civil case is the alleged wrongdoer just as in the criminal case however they are not facing a criminal penalty like jail time.  In general, the defendant in a civil lawsuit is facing money damages.  Money damages are the amount of money that would need to be paid to the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) in the event that the plaintiff wins the lawsuit.

Civil Case Breakdown:

John is driving a car on his way to work.  Doug is driving a semi-truck to a local store.  Doug is not paying attention. John is sitting at a stop light and Doug rear-ends John.  John's car is totalled and his arm is broken.  John goes to the hospital and has to miss 5 weeks of work due to the injury.  John is out a lot of money and his arm hurt for a long time.  John hires a lawyer and John's lawyer files a lawsuit against Doug.  John goes to court and proves to a judge that it is, "more likely than not" that he was injured and lost money because Doug wasn't paying attention and rear-ended him. The judge orders Doug to pay John money for his missed work and for the discomfort of having his arm broken.  Doug pays John and the case is over.

Criminal Case Breakdown:

John is driving a car on his way to work.  Doug is driving a semi-truck to a local store.  Doug is drunk-driving. John is sitting at stop light and Doug rear-ends John.  John's car is totalled and his arm is broken.  John goes to the hospital and has to miss 5 weeks of work due to the injury.  John is out a lot of money and his arm hurt for a long time.  A police officer investigates Doug and arrests him for drunk driving.  The State pursues a case of drunk driving against Doug.  Doug hires a lawyer. The State goes to a judge and tries to prove that Doug was drunk driving, "beyond a reasonable doubt."  Doug's lawyer tries to poke holes in the State's case.  The judge hears the evidence and decides that the State has proven their case.  The judge put Doug in jail for 6 months and orders him to pay John some money as well as pay a fine to the court.  Doug goes to jail for 6 months and pays the money then case is over.

Obviously, these are very simple examples.  But this hopefully gives you an example of the differences between a civil case and a criminal case.


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