Criminal Cases vs. Civil Cases

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Criminal Cases vs. Civil Cases

What is the difference between a civil case and criminal case? Two of the fundamental differences include the nature of the act being addressed and who initiates the legal action.

In a criminal case, the lawsuit is brought by a government entity, including federal, state, and local governments because crimes are typically considered as an act against society.  A prosecutor, on behalf of the government brings this lawsuit against the person accused of a crime. As such, when viewing a criminal court records, the title may say something like “State vs. John Doe.”   The legal action is brought against the defendant based on federal, state, or local criminal law statutes, depending on the crime.  These laws define what constitutes a certain act as criminal. Criminal cases can include matters involving DUIs, murder, kidnapping, robbery, rape, and arson.

One of the goals of criminal law cases is to create social order.  The government prosecutes crimes in an effort to both punish the criminal, and to deter further criminal acts.  Punishment for criminal cases includes fines and/or incarceration, depending on the crime.  The amount of the fine and the time frame for incarceration will vary depending on the type of crime committed.

However, a civil cases to not result in incarceration.  A civil case is a legal action involving disputes between two or more persons, businesses, or a government agency.  The goal of civil cases is to right some type of wrong.  In a civil case, the legal action is brought by the victim (plaintiff) against the person(s) or organization(s) they felt wronged them (defendant). Hence, a civil court case record will have the names of the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s), John Doe vs. Jane Smith.   Civil cases include auto accidents, wills, property disputes, and contracts.  In a civil case, if a defendant is found guilty, they will not face incarceration.  Rather, the defendant will be required to repair the wrong they created.  This repair could be through a financial payment to the payment, it could mean honoring the obligations of a contract, or it could require ceasing a certain activity.

In a criminal case, the crime victim cannot receive financial compensation from the defendant if the defendant is found guilty.  Any fines that the defendant pays will become the property of the government.  The victim is not the party pursing the legal case.  In fact, in some cases, a government agency may choose to pursue a case against an accused, even when the crime victim does not wish to pursue the case.

If a crime victim feels that they are entitled to financial compensation for the crimes committed against them, they must pursue a separate civil action against the defendant.  Civil laws are very different from criminal laws, so the legal action being pursued will typically not have the same name.  For example, there is no action for murder in a civil court.  However, the a crime victim (or their family if they are deceased) may sue the defendant based on claims such as “emotional distress.”  As these are two separate legal actions, it is possible to lose one case, but win another.  In the famous OJ Simpson murder case, OJ Simpson was found not guilty of murder.  However, in the civil case brought by the victim’s family, the civil court ruled in favor of the family, and OJ Simpson was required pay the family a financial settlement.

If you interested in viewing criminal or civil case records, provides resources, information, and links for accessing criminal and civil court records all states in the US.

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