Civil vs. Criminal: Understanding The Difference

Even from the perspective of a longtime Colorado attorney, little is simple about the legal system. It’s completely understandable, then, when prospective clients are confused about whether they have a civil case or a criminal case. Issues like jurisdiction, venue, rules of procedure, and trial processes differ between civil and criminal cases; they even differ within certain case types. This complicated system is literally why lawyers have (and need) law degrees. But things are never this clear for prospective clients.

Complicating matters, of course, are well-known and widely publicized criminal cases that have a civil component, or vice versa. Take O.J. Simpson, for example. His criminal case resulted in a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict, but in a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful death for the same murders at issue in his criminal case, he was found legally responsible and ordered to pay thousands of dollars to the surviving family members.

How is that possible? What are the differences between civil and criminal cases? Here are just a few.

Number of parties involved in the case

There can be any number of parties in a civil case and each usually has their own lawyer(s). Think of a serious traffic accident involving both drivers and both insurance companies. In some really complicated civil cases, a lot of different parties (like insurance companies) can all be included in the same, massive lawsuit. In criminal cases, the opposing party is the District Attorney’s Office, and the defendant is the only one sitting at the other end of the table. Other states may handle things differently, of course, but for this Colorado attorney, criminal cases are often narrower in scope.

Outcomes from civil and criminal cases

The outcome in a civil case is generally an award of damages, often money. And in civil court, a judge can’t really throw you in jail, barring a few exceptions (read: don’t get found in contempt of court!). Criminal courts, on the other hand, can’t award true “damages.” A criminal case can result in an order for “restitution,” however. Failure to pay restitution in criminal cases is also a way to find yourself back in jail even after the criminal case is complete! Speaking of jail, it’s a common outcome in criminal cases but not so much civil cases.

Likewise, pleading guilty and admitting to owing restitution may be used against you to support an award of further damages in civil court. Only an attorney can accurately explain the difference to you, and if you’re worried about being financially liable for a civil or criminal case, you should speak to an attorney immediately. Sometimes damages in civil court are offset by restitution owed/paid in criminal court, and sometimes insurance companies can battle out coverage in a process called subrogation. These are very specialized areas of law, and the average consumer has NO IDEA what can go wrong without a Colorado attorney in your corner.

Rules of procedure and trial

Procedures are different across civil and criminal cases. Colorado has separate Rules of Civil Procedure for civil matters, and in criminal cases the courts use the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure. A Colorado attorney may be well-versed in one and not the other.  For example, different timeframes and admissibility criteria are common. Also, the right of discovery (i.e., the ability to see what cards the other side is holding) is also substantially expanded in civil cases than in a criminal case. The defense in a criminal trial has almost no obligation to explain the case to the DA, but in a civil case, both sides are expected to make full disclosure prior to even starting trial. Hearsay (which I’m sure you’ve heard of from Law & Order) and other rules are also relaxed in civil court situations, making civil trials more in-depth even than an accompanying criminal case.

Burden of Proof

The last major difference between a civil and a criminal case is the burden of proof.  Everyone knows that O.J. was found not guilty in criminal court, but yet somehow guilty of the same conduct in civil court. One of the major reasons for the differing verdicts is the burden of proof required to convict in criminal cases. And thanks to Law & Order (again), NCIS, CSI, and other legal shows, lots of people know that the burden of proof in a criminal case is “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.” This is the highest burden in any court, and jurors can’t have much (if any) doubt about a defendant’s guilt before they come to a Guilty verdict. Also, the District Attorney has to prove you are guilty. You don’t need to prove your innocence, you just need to mount a defense to the DA’s claims.

In civil cases, the burden is decidedly lower.  The suing party generally has the burden of proof, and she or he must prove by a “Preponderance of the Evidence” that the bad conduct occurred and that damages should be awarded. Sounds fancy, but this standard basically means that the plaintiff in the civil case has to merely tip the scales in their favor.  I like to say that jurors need only be 50.0001% certain that the situation occurred and the defendant was to blame. Obviously way easier to prove than beyond a reasonable doubt, folks. And that right there is why O.J. is responsible for paying wrongful death damages to his wife’s family and yet didn’t go to jail for murder.

Finding a Colorado attorney who understands your criminal AND civil liability

While many clients have either a criminal case or a civil case, there are some circumstances in which both case types can proceed at the same time but are entirely separate. It’s also possible that what happens in one of those cases will have an impact on what happens in the other.

In these situations, having a competent attorney might mean having two attorneys: one that routinely handles criminal cases and one that handles the relevant subset of civil cases. I’ve handled a number of civil lawsuits in my career as an attorney, and I appear in civil court regularly. While I’m a dedicated criminal defense attorney, I have the experience and knowledge needed to work closely with your civil litigation team. I also have a substantial network of family and civil attorneys that I trust with my prospective clients’ civil matters, and I work well with these attorneys in those situations that require coordination between civil and criminal matters.

If you are facing a criminal matter and a corresponding civil case – or simply aren’t sure – contact me for a free initial consultation. If I can’t help in your civil matter, I can help you find someone who can. Let Justie get justice for you today!

 

 

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