The American court system is divided between criminal and civil justice systems. In the criminal system, it is the government that brings a case against a defendant, and in civil court, citizens can bring lawsuits against one another. The laws, punishments, and the burdens of proof differ between both court systems. For instance, prison is a possibility in certain criminal cases, whereas civil cases do not punish the accused with incarceration.

In some instances, a civil lawsuit may follow a criminal case, such as a wrongful death case or police misconduct case. For example, even though O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the victims’ families were able to bring a wrongful death suit against the former football star.

The families won the suit as O.J. was found “liable” in the murders—which, in civil law, is not the same thing as guilty in criminal law. The basis for this finding is in the burden of proof, which is further explained below.

How Does Each System Work?

The criminal justice system is focused on cases that are brought into either federal or state criminal courts by law enforcement. It is the government that brings a case against the accused individual, and it is the government’s burden of proof to show the jury its case and the evidence that supports it. Penalties in criminal cases widely range from fines to the death penalty.

In the civil court system, individuals or organizations can bring each other to court. These cases typically involve a dispute of some sort, with penalties usually involving financial or property compensation. The right to a jury trial is not guaranteed in civil cases that seek an equitable remedy, but the right to a jury trial in criminal cases is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

What Punishments are Available in Each System?

If you are convicted in criminal court, you could be ordered to pay a fine, go on probation, or spend time in jail. In civil court, penalties for liability are typically damages awarded to the plaintiff. Unlike civil court, the criminal court system stigmatizes defendants.

What About the Burden of Proof?

The burden of proof is much higher in criminal law. All that is needed to find someone liable in civil law is a “preponderance of evidence” that more than 50% of the evidence points to something. Simply put, it is more likely than not that the facts presented are true. The jury in a criminal trial must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. If there is any reasonable uncertainty of guilt, then the defendant must be acquitted.

In the O.J. Simpson example, the criminal trial jury could not come to a conviction verdict based on the fact that they had some level of uncertainty as to his guilt. In the civil case, the jurors believed the evidence pointed more toward the direction of guilt, than not.

If I Am Involved in a Criminal or Civil Trial, Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are facing criminal charges or are involved in a civil case, you should speak to a criminal lawyer or civil lawyer immediately. Laws vary with each state and a criminal defense attorney (in the case of criminal charges) will be able to advise you of your rights and the next steps for your case. If you are dealing with a civil dispute, you will want to consult a civil attorney, and find more information on how to file a civil lawsuit.