The court system in the United States is divided into two categories, the criminal system and the civil system. The government brings cases against defendants in the criminal system.

In the civil system, a citizen can bring a lawsuit against another individual or entity. The laws that govern these systems, the burdens of proof, and the available punishments differ between the two systems.

For example, in criminal cases, a defendant faces incarceration. In contrast, in civil cases, a defendant will not face incarceration.

In some cases, civil lawsuits may follow criminal cases. For example, wrongful death claims or police misconduct claims.

How Does Each System Work?

The criminal system focuses on cases which are brought into state and federal criminal courts by law enforcement. The government brings a case against the accused individual, or the defendant.

The burden of proof is on the government to show the jury their case as well as the evidence which supports it. The penalties which are available in criminal cases vary widely and may include anything from criminal fines to the death penalty.

In the civil court system, organizations and individuals can bring other organizations and individuals to court. Typically, these cases involve disputes between the parties.

The penalties in civil cases typically involve monetary or property compensation. The right to a jury trial is not guaranteed in civil cases which seek equitable remedies.

However, the right to a trial by jury is guaranteed in criminal cases by the Sixth Amendment.

What Punishments are Available in Each System?

If an individual is convicted in criminal court, they may be ordered to pay criminal fines, spend time in jail or prison, or be placed on probation. In civil courts, the penalties for liability are typically monetary damages which are awarded to the plaintiff.

What is Preponderance of the Evidence vs. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?

In nearly every legal proceeding, there are two sets of important standards which must be met prior to a court or jury determining who prevails in a case. These rules are called evidentiary standards and burden of proof.

These rules and standards determine which party is responsible for providing evidence to either prove or disprove a particular claim and the amount of evidence which is necessary to accomplish this. Civil and criminal cases do vary in many aspects, however, evidence is typically a key factor in deciding who prevails in a case.

In both civil law cases and criminal law cases, the parties are required to convince a trier of fact, or a judge or jury, of their argument. In civil cases, such as personal injury cases, the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence.

In criminal cases, prosecutors are required to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is typically not totally clear to the average citizen what these standards mean and how they truly differ from one another.

What is the Preponderance of the Evidence Standard?

As previously noted, the preponderance of the evidence standard is the evidentiary standard which is required in civil law cases. The preponderance standard is lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

The preponderance of the evidence standard means that the burden of proof is met when there is a greater than 50% change that, based upon all of the evidence shown, that the plaintiff’s claims are true and that the defendant did, in fact, engage in the conduct which caused injury or damage to the plaintiff.

Numerous legal scholars explain that the preponderance of the evidence standard requires at least 51% of the evidence presented to prove the plaintiff’s argument. An additional way to consider the standard is to ask whether the plaintiff’s argument or position is more likely to be true than is it to not be true.

A plaintiff can meet this burden of proof by presenting physical and testimonial evidence in support of their case and the idea that it is more likely to be true than it is not true that the defendant was the party who caused the harm. The defendant, on the other hand, is not required to present any evidence to prove or defend their position if the plaintiff fails to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence.

If a plaintiff does not meet this burden of proof, the defendant will prevail.

What is the Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Standard?

The burden of proof always rests with the prosecution in criminal cases. This is because a defendant is always presumed innocent until proven guilty.

If the prosecution fails to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is not required to prove any aspect of their case. The standard of beyond a reasonable doubt is much higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard.

Generally, legal scholars will describe the beyond a reasonable doubt standard as being met when a prosecutor demonstrates that there is no plausible reason to believe anything other than what they present. If, however, there is any doubt after careful consideration of all of the evidence which is presented, the standard has not been met.

This does not mean, however, that this standard is an absolute standard where the prosecution must prove their case beyond any doubt whatsoever. The reasonable doubt standard provides that the prosecution is required to prove the defendant’s guilt to the extent that no reasonable individual could reasonably doubt the defendant’s guilt.

Although the courts do not attach or assign a number to the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, many legal scholars interpret it to mean 90%, 95%, or 99% sure. If, after the prosecution has presented all of their evidence to a judge or jury and they have no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or if they are only left with unreasonable doubts, then the prosecution has meet their burden, proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the defendant should be adjudicated guilty.

On the other hand, if a reasonable doubt does exist as to whether or not the defendant committed the crime, then the defendant should be adjudicated innocent. A common example which shows the difference between civil and criminal standards is the O.J. Simpson case.

In the criminal trial, the prosecution presented enough evidence to meet their standard but the defense presented enough evidence to raise reasonable doubts with the jurors. Due to this fact, O.J. Simpson was acquitted.

When the case was brought in civil court, however, in the form of a wrongful death lawsuit, the preponderance of the evidence standard was met, and O.J. Simpson was found liable for the murders and ordered to pay damages. In this case, it was easier to show that O.J. was more likely than not responsible for the murders even thought it could not be shown beyond a reasonable doubt.

Do I Need Assistance from an Attorney?

It is crucial to have the assistance of an attorney, no matter whether you are involved in a criminal case or a civil case. Your attorney will be best equipped to present evidence and meet the required burden of proof.

Your attorney will represent you and protect your rights and interests as well as present available defenses. If you are involved in a civil law case, then a qualified civil attorney will provide you with legal guidance. If you are involved in a criminal law case, a criminal defense lawyer will provide you with legal advice and defend you in court.