Civil v. Criminal
Civil and Criminal Cases occur in the same locations, with largely the same procedure, but some basic differences can help the non-lawyer understand what he or she sees in court.
Civil cases focus on a dispute between two parties that have similar rights, the plaintiff and the defendant. The party bringing the action must (usually) prove that their version of the facts is more correct than the other’s sides “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which means “more likely than not.” In a civil case, both parties must provide to the other side (when requested) any possessed relevant information. Also, in civil cases the remedy sought is usually money to put the plaintiff back to where he or she would have been without the defendant’s actions.
Criminal cases, on the other hand, involve “society,” i.e. the state (at any level from local to federal) claiming that the defendant has engaged in some behavior so egregious that society itself will not tolerate it. The key distinction here is that the state, and not the wronged party, brings the suit. Generally a “victim” (if one exists) retains the ability to sue in a civil action, regardless of whether the state has brought a criminal action. Because a defendant faces the expansive power of the government forcing legal action, the legal system provides extra protection. The state must prove their facts “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a burden of proof much higher than the civil standard. In a criminal action the state must provide the defense with all information, but the defense has no obligation to reciprocate. Lastly, in criminal actions the remedy sought by the state is punitive in nature, i.e. some punishment such as incarceration and/or fines designed to prevent such behavior in the future.