Understanding the Distinction: Criminal vs. Civil Cases
At William Weinberg, we pride ourselves on helping our clients navigate the complexities of the legal system. An essential aspect of understanding legal proceedings is differentiating between criminal and civil cases. These two branches of law serve different purposes and follow distinct processes.
Criminal cases are initiated when a government authority — such as the state or federal government — seeks to penalize an individual for conduct deemed criminal by legislative bodies. These cases are prosecuted by a state representative, known as the prosecutor, not the individual harmed by the alleged crime. It's important to note that the prosecutor can pursue charges against someone's wishes or decline to press charges even if the victim seeks prosecution. This prosecutorial discretion contrasts with civil cases, which are typically commenced by the injured party.
In criminal proceedings, the consequences faced by the accused can include fines, imprisonment, or both, depending on the severity of the crime. Conversely, civil litigants may be required to compensate for damages or relinquish property but are not subject to incarceration for the dispute alone.
Defendants in criminal trials who cannot afford an attorney are entitled to representation at the public's expense. Meanwhile, parties in civil disputes are generally responsible for securing their own legal counsel or representing themselves.
The burden of proof also differs significantly between the two types of cases. In a criminal trial, guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt" — a far higher standard than the civil trial requirement to prove liability by a "preponderance of the evidence," meaning it is more likely than not that the defendant is responsible.
While defendants in criminal cases are almost universally guaranteed the right to a jury trial, civil litigants have this right under particular circumstances and not in all cases. Moreover, though atypical, civil defendants can face jail time for contempt of court, highlighting that legal consequences can occasionally overlap between civil and criminal domains.
Indeed, some actions can infringe upon both criminal and civil statutes, leading to separate legal actions. For instance, the infamous O. J. Simpson case saw Simpson acquitted in the criminal murder trial in 1995 but found "liable" in the subsequent civil trial for wrongful death in 1997, resulting in a multimillion-dollar damages award against him.
At William Weinberg, we provide guidance to individuals facing either criminal or civil legal challenges. With a commitment to our client's rights and a thorough understanding of the law, our team is prepared to deliver clear-sighted and robust representation. Contact us at (949) 474-8008 to arrange a complimentary consultation and embark on a path towards a resolution.