In the U.S., there are two distinct branches of law that make up the legal system, one for criminal cases and the other for civil. The differences between the two are many and varied, but at its most basic, criminal law involves a dispute with the state, while civil law pertains to disputes between private parties.
A famous example that underscores this delineation is the trial, or trials, of O.J. Simpson. In the criminal case that sought to prove the former athlete’s guilt in the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, a Los Angeles jury found Simpson not guilty. But in a separate civil trial two years later, a jury found Simpson liable for the wrongful deaths of Brown and Goldman, ordering him to pay more than $30 million in damages.
So while a criminal court found Simpson not guilty of murder, a civil court essentially came to the opposite conclusion.
One of the starkest contrasts in the example cited above is sentencing. Had Simpson been convicted of murder in a criminal trial, he would have likely spent the rest of his life in prison. Criminal courts can sentence offenders to a number of other punishments in addition to jail time, ranging from the death penalty to community service.
On a more fundamental level, it’s important to understand the purpose of the criminal court system. The reason a criminal defendant is sued by the state rather than a private party is that it is the court’s role is to maintain the integrity of society and deter further crimes.
In civil court, judgments are almost always monetary in nature. This is why Simpson was ordered to pay damages in the wrongful death lawsuit rather than being sentenced to prison. In contrast to criminal law, the role of the civil court system is primarily to settle disputes between individuals and organizations.
Because criminal court’s are attempting to take one’s liberty, the burden of proof on the state is very high. It is what is called “reasonable doubt.” This means that a prosecutor generally must prove the facts of the case beyond a reasonable doubt; jurors should have no reasonable doubt in their minds regarding the truth.
In civil trials, where generally only money and not liberty is at stake, the burden of proof on the plaintiff is less. States have different names and some different levels for the proof required, but most agree that the facts presented must be more likely than not true. In other words, the plaintiff must prove its case by 50.1%.
The ability to try legal cases in criminal or civil court, or both, is a vital feature of our justice system, helping ensure fairness and proportionality. It’s part of the reason why debtors don’t go to jail in America or, conversely, why violent criminals aren’t allowed to skate free by paying a fine.