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Just what is the difference between civil and criminal?

Knowing the difference can help to achieve maximum justice


September 19, 2018

Civil and criminal are two legal terms that oftentimes get used incorrectly. Knowing the difference and how each can provide justice is important.

The famous football player OJ Simpson, who was found not guilty of murder in a criminal court in 1995, was later found guilty of wrongful death charges in 1997 - and had to pay 33.5 million in damages. It is a classic case of the difference between the two types of courts. One provided the possibility of prison time whereas the other resulted in restitution to the impacted families.

The National Crime Victim Law Institute (NCVLI) says the criminal justice system is used when a victim of a crime makes a report to a law enforcement agency, which may then make an investigation. If an arrest is made following the investigation and sufficient evidence exists, a prosecutor acting on behalf of the State or Jurisdiction then files charges.

Only the government can initiate prosecution in criminal cases and both incarceration and monetary fines are possible outcomes depending on the crime.

In civil court, crime victims can still seek justice even if criminal prosecution has been undertaken and even if the defendant may have been found not guilty, such as with the OJ Simpson case.

Unlike the criminal justice system, the civil justice system does not determine an offender’s guilt or innocence, but works to determine whether the offender is liable for the harm caused to the victim. Civil lawsuits are generally initiated by private people, organizations or companies.

Peter Anderson, civil litigation attorney in Washington, DC says that the way something is done can be the difference between a civil and criminal matter.

“The conduct at issue in criminal cases is generally more serious than civil cases and frequently involves intent,” Anderson said. “Civil cases frequently involve negligent conduct.”

If an individual broke his leg by falling on ice in a parking lot, depending on the circumstances, a civil lawsuit could commence. However, if that same individual broke his leg because he was physically assaulted on the ice, criminal charges would likely be brought against the individual that partook in the assault.

Civil charges for the assault could also be filed and filing both would not be “double-jeopardy.”

Another significant difference between civil and criminal court is the burden of proof. In criminal law, the standard is that the accused are guilty of committing a crime if evidence can be shown to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Criminal cases require ironclad evidence.

In civil cases, the standard is lower but clear and convincing evidence is still necessary. This is generally referred to as being greater than a 50 percent chance.

One area that individuals struggle with in regards to the criminal justice system is knowing when to call the police.

However, it is important to know if a circumstance is criminal or is a civil issue – and what, if anything, the police can do about it.

For example, a landlord may negligently fail to maintain fire extinguishers. Police would not needed to be called in this situation, but a complaint with the city may be necessary if the landlord refuses to update the fire extinguisher.

If the fire extinguisher which was not updated fails to perform when needed, this could result in both civil and criminal charges depending on the circumstances.

It is also important to note that the Statute of Limitations (or time limit to file) is different depending on whether civil charges or criminal charges would be pursued.

For criminal charges in Alaska, there is no statute of limitations for murder and all misdemeanor crimes have a five-year time limit for charges to be filed. The statute of limitations for felonies varies from five years or more depending on the specific crime.

For civil charges, the statute of limitations ranges from two to ten years, depending on the specific issue. Personal injury claims for example have a two-year limit whereas the collection of unpaid rents and fraud is ten years.


Reader Comments

AHW writes:

The definition of irony is: Steven Weber does not himself know the difference between civil and criminal. OJ Simpson was not found guilty in civil case, but liable.

billjohnson writes:

How does this article add anything to the community news that can't be found through Wikipedia or Google?


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