Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

A criminal case is an action brought by the state against a criminal defendant for a violation of the criminal laws of the jurisdiction bringing the action.

  • The most important thing for you to keep in mind as a survivor is that you are not technically a “party” to the criminal case.
    • The official parties to the criminal case are the “state” and the defendant. The state is represented by a public prosecutor (state’s attorney or district attorney).
    • While the prosecutor is generally required to consult with the victim before making certain key decisions in the case, it is the prosecutor makes the decision on what charges (if any) to bring, whether the state accepts a “plea bargain” (deal between the prosecutor and the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for the prosecutor’s agreement to seek a lesser sentence) and what type of sentence to recommend to the court.
  • The primary objective of the criminal case is to impose a criminal “sentence” after a defendant is found guilty.
    • The court may consider the harm to the victim in imposing the sentence. This harm is usually communicated by the victim impact statement.
    • Victims can, however, seek restitution for certain losses. The sentence may include jail time.
  • To establish a defendant is guilty of committing a crime, the state is required to demonstrate guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
    • This is one of the highest standards of proof to satisfy and it reflects the fact that criminal defendants face loss of liberty (imprisonment) if they are found guilty.

A civil case is a private lawsuit brought by or on behalf of the victim against the offender and/or responsible third parties.

  • As the victim-survivor, you are a party to the civil case and you have a great deal of control over how the case is presented and ultimately resolved.
  • The primary objective of a civil case is to award financial compensation to the plaintiff.
    • Unlike criminal cases, no jail time can be imposed; rather, you sue the offender and/or third parties for a monetary judgment that includes compensatory damages (compensation for your financial losses and pain and suffering) and which may include punitive damages (a monetary amount imposed to punish the offender and/or liable third-party and to deter future conduct).
    • In general, victims are entitled to a much broader array of damages in civil cases than they would be in the context of criminal restitution.
  • The standard of proof in civil cases is much lower than in criminal cases. Most civil cases require that the plaintiff prove liability only by a preponderance of the evidence—that it is more likely than not that a defendant is liable.