Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Differences between Criminal and Civil Law

After O.J. Simpson was acquitted in his double murder trial, most American’s thought that the case was over. They believed that in accordance with the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution that "no person shall be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb..." Why then was Simpson able to be sued and ordered to pay damages? The reason lies in the kind of actions brought against Simpson. First he was tried criminally and even though he was acquitted or found not guilty, he was still liable to be sued under civil law procedures for damages. In his case, two (2) trials reached very different conclusions. How was this possible? One of the reasons is that there is a far greater burden of proof in criminal cases than exist in civil cases.

Several questions must be asked to point out the differences between civil cases and criminal cases. Initially, we have to know who are the parties involved. In civil cases, the parties are private individuals or individuals and corporations. In criminal cases, the government is involved as a prosecutor, either the federal, state or local government. For example, in Pennsylvania, a criminal case is between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as the Plaintiff and the individual who has been charged with a crime, as the Defendant.

The next question that must be asked to establish a difference and distinction between civil and criminal cases is what is the nature of the case or what must the Court decide? In civil cases, Courts must determine whether one party has caused harm to the other party, in other words, the case deals with rights and duties between individuals or corporations. In criminal cases, the issue to be decided by the Court is whether one party has violated a law or a statute that prohibits some type of activity. That is, the case deals with offenses against society as a whole even if the offense is against one single person.

The next question to be decided is the penalty or remedy being sought in the case. In civil cases, individuals, the Plaintiffs, sue for damages either monetary or otherwise, such as specifically performing a contract, to compensate for their perceived loss. In criminal cases, the government acts as the Plaintiff and the federal, state or local government seeks to punish the Defendant or deter the Defendant from further action or to rehabilitate the Defendant so that peace in the community is preserved.

Finally, to point out the distinction between civil and criminal cases, one must ask what must be established in order to win? Or in other words, what is the burden of proof? In a civil case, the Plaintiff must establish their case by a preponderance of the evidence to support the claim. An example of the preponderance of the evidence statute is the slight tipping of scales one way or the other. In percentages, anything greater than fifty (50) percent, establishes the preponderance of the evidence. In a criminal case, the burden of proof on the government is much, much, much greater. In order for a person who has been charged with the crime and is presumed to be innocent of that crime by our laws and customs, the government, in order to prove guilt, must establish that the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Considering the example of the scales, the government must weigh those scales far greater than a mere tipping in order to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Under Pennsylvania Law, a reasonable doubt is a kind of doubt that would cause a reasonable person to hesitate, or pause before acting in an important affair of their own lives. A reasonable doubt must be an honest doubt and if a reasonable doubt exists in a case or in any part of the case, it must cause the Defendant to be acquitted or found not guilty of the crime.

The natural question then becomes: "why do criminal cases require a higher burden of proof than civil cases?" A fundamental answer is that the judicial system requires a higher burden of proof in a criminal matter because the remedy for violations of criminal laws often requires the taking away of the individual’s fundamental rights including the rights of life, liberty or property. If you are convicted of a crime especially a serious crime, there is a great chance you will be incarcerated and placed in jail or prison. Before the government can take away those rights, it is necessary that they prove the individual’s guilt by establishing solid proof of that guilt which is proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A civil case obviously requires less of a burden because the remedy is money or other damages that do not affect life or liberty but only property.
One of Pennsylvania’s young heroes, two time Super Bowl winning quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been accused of sexual assault. Even though this action took place nearly a year ago, he has never been charged with a crime and there has not been any criminal prosecution or criminal investigation and it appears that none will ever take place. However, he has been sued civilly and the burden of proof on the accuser is proving liability, for the purpose of seeking monetary damages, by a mere preponderance of the evidence.

Submitted by:

Samuel J. Davis, Esquire