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What’s the Difference Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case?

In the US, the judicial system is made up of civil cases and criminal cases. And they are each very different types of cases that require different types of processing. In short, when someone refers to a criminal, they are referring to someone who has committed a crime that is clearly outlined in the state or federal law. These are processed by the state courts. A civil case, however, is usually a dispute between civilians in which it may not be completely clear whether or not a law has been broken. Here are some key facts regarding both.

What is a criminal case?

A criminal case is a proceeding in which a person is tried for a law that has been broken. In these types of cases, it will be the state who prosecutes the criminal, not a civilian, even though the process could have been started by a civilian. For example, if someone unlawfully breaks into your residence and you file a police report, then you have started the process by contacting the authorities. But it will be up to the state to decide if there is enough evidence to take the matter to court.

What is a civil case?

A civil case is a conflict between people or institutions such as businesses, typically over money. In these types of cases, one person or entity, called the plaintiff, will file a complaint with the state against a defendant who they feel has caused them financial harm in some way. The judge will then hear the testimonies of both parties and decide whether or not they have a justifiable claim.

What is the difference in punishments in civil and criminal cases?

Punishment is perhaps the biggest difference between criminal and civil cases. When guilt is determined in a criminal case, the person being tried could face jail time or even prison. But in a civil case, the only punishment is usually monetary compensation. However, if a judge determines that a law has been broken that resulted in monetary damages, the plaintiff or defendant could possibly be prosecuted and tried at a later date in a state hearing. If they are then found guilty of a crime, they face the potential for criminal punishment, including jail or prison time.

An example of this scenario would be if a Denver tenant sued his landlord for loss of income because of illness caused by black mold in his apartment. He may have taken the case to court if he informed the landlord about the hazardous living conditions, but the landlord refused to address it. If the tenant wins the case, he may be awarded compensation for both his lost wages and medical bills. But the judge may decide that there has been criminally negligent behavior on the part of the landlord and inform the state. In this case, the prosecutor may find evidence that this is an ongoing problem for all the landlord’s properties and decide to prosecute the landlord in a state trial. And the landlord (defendant) will at that time most likely hire a Denver criminal defense lawyer. In other words, just because a case is a civil matter does not always necessarily mean that someone didn’t commit a crime.

What are the other differences between civil and criminal cases?

Although punishments are probably the main differences in civil and criminal cases, they certainly are not the only ones. Another difference is how the cases are tried. Criminal cases are usually presented to a jury in a courtroom, but most civil cases are tried only by a judge, sometimes just in his or her chambers. Defendants and plaintiffs also often represent themselves in civil cases, whereas that is seldom the case in criminal cases. And civil cases are not considered quite as serious as criminal cases, so the burden of proof isn’t quite as great. While a criminal has to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a defendant in a civil case is basically at the mercy of the judge’s ruling, whether there is substantial evidence or not.

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