Criminal Cases and Civil Cases

by RyanD on December 4, 2013

Legal matters that result in court time can be of two types: criminal or civil. Criminal matters refer to those cases where a violation of a state or federal criminal code has taken place, resulting in adjudication and small claims matters between parties under a specific dollar amount (as an example a landlord-tenant dispute).

There are a few instances where a legal matter will evolve into both a criminal and civil case. A famous example was the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil cases of 1995 and 1997. The criminal case (The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson) was brought based on allegations that O.J. Simpson killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her companion Ronald Goldman, a violation of California Penal Code section 187-199. Although Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges at trial, a civil case awarded the sum of $33.5 million to the Brown and Goldman families for wrongful death.

Criminal Cases Explained
Criminal cases involve violations of criminal statutes or codes within a state or on a federal basis. Theft of property, burglary, illegal breaking and entering, sexual assault, manslaughter, homicide, and physical assault are examples of crimes that would violate criminal codes. Typically a criminal case comes about when an individual who commits a criminal act is arrested by a policing body in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. The state’s county or district attorney (or federal government through the U.S. Attorney’s Office) serves as prosecutor, representing the interests of the government, and the arrestee is the criminal defendant. A defendant has certain rights, such as the right to legal representation or counsel, even if the defendant lacks the financial means to pay for such representation.

Civil Cases Explained
Civil cases differ in that they involve matters between two parties, generally referred to as the plaintiff and the respondent to the complaint. A complaint can arise between individuals, an individual and a corporation, and even an individual or corporation and the government. Matters that may come before a civil court include those that involve product liability, wrongful death or injury, and liability to pay monies owed due to an agreed upon financial transaction or contract.

Civil cases may intersect with criminal cases in those instances where not only a violation of criminal law took place, warranting the interest of the state or government to prosecute, but also where the criminal act resulted in the violation of some civil statute.

The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Cases
There are several differences between those cases that find their way to a criminal court and those litigated in civil court. In a criminal proceeding, action is brought against a criminal defendant by a governmental body. A criminal defendant faces imprisonment or fines if found guilty, while a respondent to a civil suit is liable for damages but not confinement. A criminal defendant may appeal a conviction on various grounds but cannot be retried for the same crime if found not guilty (under the double jeopardy clause found in the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Either party in a civil case may appeal a court’s decision if they lose.

The burden of proof on the prosecutor that determines guilt or innocence in a criminal case is beyond reasonable doubt, which means a person must be found absolutely in the wrong. For civil cases, a preponderance of evidence is the standard used to determine whether or not the respondent is responsible for the damages claim made by the plaintiff.


This article was contributed on behalf of Chernoff Law, a Houston-based criminal lawyer looking to help you with your criminal case. Check out his website today and see how he can help you!




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