One of the biggest mysteries that we all want to know, but are afraid to ask: How Can Someone be Liable in a Civil Case but Not Guilty in a Criminal Case?
In the American legal system, when an individual commits a wrongdoing, they may be faced with the headaches of both a civil case and criminal case (the two categories of law). When this individual committed their wrongdoing, it is likely that they broke a law. If so, they will be faced with a criminal case against the state government or federal government. If this wrongdoing was aimed toward another individual, then they will also be faced with a civil case, which usually involves disputes between people because a legal duty or responsibility that was not adhered to. There are many differences (and some similarities), between a criminal case and a civil case.
What is the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Cases?
In order to begin to distinguish between a criminal case and a civil case and further, why an individual may be found liable in a civil case, but not guilty in a criminal case, we must first understand the distinctions present between criminal cases and civil cases.
In a criminal case, the “plaintiff,” (the party that brings forth the action), is the state or federal government. And instead of an injured victim filing the case in court, a prosecutor will do so, in order to represent the state or “the People” or “the United States.” That is because the crime itself will be considered to have affected everyone in society. In a criminal case, though they may indirectly have an impact, the injured party will typically have no say in whether or not a criminal case will be brought forth against a potential defendant.
On the other hand, in a civil case, the injured party or victim will file a lawsuit in civil court. They will become the “plaintiff.”
In a criminal case, the state or federal government will seek to punish a defendant through means such as jail time, fines, restitution, probation or even death in certain states or federally (or a combination of these consequences). Aside from punishment, the Government will also seek to rehabilitate the defendant, in order to deter him/her from committing future crimes and restore/reintegrate the defendant into normal life by improving their personal conditions. The defendant will attempt to dismiss the case prior to trial, or enter a plea (which may lessen the charge and/or punishment before trial). If the defendant must go to trial, then they will hope for a “not guilty” verdict, in order to be set free from their criminal case.
In a civil case, the plaintiff will seek monetary damages or an injunction (an order not to do something by the court), or specific performance (an order to do something by the court), in an attempt to restore the plaintiff to feeling “whole,” again. The defendant will attempt to dismiss this case prior to a trial, or submit to a settlement with the plaintiff (a negotiated agreement). If the defendant must go to trial, then they will hope for a verdict in their favor.
What is the Difference in the Burden of Proof between Criminal and Civil Cases?
The burden of proof describes the legal requirement that establishes which party must present evidence to prove or defeat a claim, in regard to facts and evidence required. In criminal cases, the government (prosecutors) carry the burden of proof. In civil cases, the plaintiff carries the burden of proof.
The standard or proof may arguably be considered the most important difference between criminal and civil cases and is often the cause of the verdict variations in these cases.
In a criminal case, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that the prosecutor must prove every single element of the crime alleged beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecutor is unable to do this, then the jury must return with a “not guilty” verdict for the defendant. This is the highest standard in any kind of court, since the punishments can be so severe and blameworthy.
In a civil case, the standard of proof is “by a preponderance of the evidence.” This means that it is more likely than unlikely that the defendant is responsible for the harm to the plaintiff. So, the plaintiff must prove their case by more than 50% of the evidence. If so, the jury must return with a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.
In some civil cases, the plaintiff must prove their case not “by a preponderance of the evidence,” but instead by “clear and convincing evidence.” These standards of proof are common in administrative, fraud and sometimes family court cases. This standard sits between “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and “by a preponderance of the evidence,” in that the plaintiff must prove that it is highly probable that their case is accurate.
For each standard of proof, there are specific jury instructions that carefully and thoroughly explain what the proof is and how the jury must decide if the burden was met or not.
Jury trials are almost always allowed in a criminal case. However, a defendant may choose to waive their right to a jury trial. In a criminal case, the verdict must be unanimous amongst all members of the jury. Civil cases will allow jury trials in some but not all cases. If there is no jury trial, then the case will be decided by a judge, known as a “bench trial.” In a civil case, the verdict does not have to be unanimous.
In a New York criminal case, a defendant is always entitled to a jury trial if the crime alleged is either a felony or a misdemeanor. However, in New York City, a criminal defendant is not entitled to a jury trial if the crime alleged is a class B misdemeanor. Additionally, in a New York criminal case, the defendant may elect to “waive” a jury trial and agree to proceed with a bench trial or a trial in which the judge renders a verdict. In federal court, the defendant also has the ability to agree to a “bench” trial, however the prosecutor also has to agree that the case be tried by a judge.
In New York, a jury trial for a felony case will have twelve jurors, and a jury trial for a misdemeanor case will have six jurors. In a civil case in New York, the jury will contain six jurors, and five out of six must agree on the verdict.
In a criminal case, the defendant will always have the right to an attorney. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, then the state or federal government must provide them with one. These defense attorneys are called “public defenders.”
In a criminal case, the defendant is awarded an abundance of rights under the criminal law and the Constitution, in order to protect them under the high standards of evidence. This does not carry over to a defendant in a civil case.
In contrast, the defendants in a civil case do not have the right to an attorney. If they cannot afford an attorney, then they will either not be represented, must find an attorney who does pro bono work, locate a non-profit legal organization, or they must represent themselves.
How May the Same Conduct Lead to Both a Criminal Case and a Civil Case?
It has been made evident that criminal cases and civil cases are very different. However, the same conduct by an individual can result in both a criminal and civil case. For example, if an individual commits assault, this assault can result in a criminal case because the individual violated the Penal (or Criminal) Law. If the person who was assaulted is injured, the individual may also find themselves in a civil case because the injured person sued for injuries, and/or pain and suffering, in exchange for monetary damages.
What Law Will Apply?
Even if an individual’s conduct results in both a criminal case and civil case, there will still be different laws, regulations, and/or codes that will apply in the case.
In federal court, the laws are found within the Code of Laws of the United States or U.S.C. For criminal cases, Title 18 of the U.S.C. and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure will govern. In civil cases, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure will apply.
On the state level, each state will have their own laws. In New York, the laws are found within the Consolidated/Unconsolidated Laws. For criminal cases, Penal Law and Criminal Procedure Law governs. In civil cases, Civil Practice Law and Rules govern.
Will the Case Captioning Be the Same?
A case caption is basically the name of a case. The “name” of a case will be different for criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, the caption will read: “[The name of the state, country or the People] v. [The Defendant’s Name].” In a civil case, the case caption will read: “[Name of Plaintiff] v. [Name of Defendant].”
When Can You Be Found Liable on a Civil Case and Not Guilty on a Criminal Case?
As mentioned previously, while there are many different procedures and aspects to criminal and civil cases, the most important difference, which is often directly tied to the reason for a “liable,” and “not guilty,” verdict simultaneously, is the standard of proof. The “beyond a reasonable doubt,” standard for criminal cases is much higher and harder to prove than the “by a preponderance of the evidence,” or “clear and convincing evidence,” standards in civil cases. Usually, if there is enough evidence for a criminal case to even be brought forth, then it is likely that a defendant will be found liable in a civil case, since the standard is so low. However, do not be mistaken: the criminal case will not have any direct impact on the determination in a civil case. It may only assist with helping to prove liability (such as serving as a source of information in a civil case).
Example of Being Liable in a Civil Case but Not Guilty in a Criminal Case
The most famous example in which a defendant was found “not guilty,” in a criminal case, but found liable in the corresponding civil case, is with defendant O.J. Simpson. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in criminal court. But in civil court, O.J. Simpson was found legally responsible for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman on a wrongful death case. These determinations mean that by law, O.J. Simpson has been found not guilty of murder.
In the criminal case, the prosecutors were required to prove that O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman with 1) malice aforethought; and 2) premeditation, beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the civil case, the plaintiffs had to prove that O.J.’s Simpson’s 1) intentional; and 2) unlawful conduct resulted in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman by a preponderance of the evidence.
The burden of proof was not met by prosecutors in the criminal case but was met by the plaintiffs in the civil case, which explains how O.J. Simpson was acquitted in his criminal case, but found liable in his civil case. These distinctive outcomes surprisingly do not contradict each other and are quite common.
Contact Us for Further Assistance
If you or a loved one have found yourself in both the grips of criminal and civil courts, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately, in order to return a “not guilty,” verdict for your criminal case, despite whatever occurs in your civil case.