criminal and civil case

Criminal and Civil Case Differences

Civil and Criminal Cases Are Very Different

You can divide all legal cases into two broad categories: criminal and civil. If you have watched popular legal series such as Law and Order and Suits, you may have noticed that criminal cases, where a person is accused of committing a crime, differ from civil cases. But do you know the exact differences? Knowing the differences between criminal cases and civil cases is fundamental to understanding the U.S. justice system.

What Is a Criminal Case?

A criminal case is a legal proceeding initiated by the government where the goal is to punish a person who is being accused of committing a criminal offense. In a criminal case, the accused is alleged to have done an act that is prohibited by criminal law. 

How Do Criminal Cases Work?

A criminal case will usually go through the following stages:

  • Arrest: Criminal cases usually begin with an arrest. 
  • Bail: While the person is in police custody, a magistrate or other judge may grant them bail after considering some factors, including the likelihood of the person returning for trial. Sometimes, the judge may order that the person be released without bail, especially if it’s a minor offense and they don’t have a criminal history.
  • Initial hearing and arraignment: At this stage, the defendant is given a copy of the charges against them, and the charges are read in court. The defendant will take a plea of guilty or not guilty.
  • Preliminary hearings and pre-trial motions: Pre-trial proceedings may include discovery, motions to suppress evidence, plea negotiations, and other legal motions
  • Trial: Most criminal trials are jury trials. During trial, the state will present its case against the defendant, who will then put up their defense. The trial will end with conviction or an acquittal.
  • Sentencing: If the judge or jury finds the defendant guilty, they will be sentenced. The sentence can be payment of a fine, imprisonment, community service, or a combination of these.

What Is a Civil Case?

A civil case is a legal proceeding where a party called the plaintiff claims that another party, known as the defendant, didn’t fulfill a legal duty the defendant owed them and asks the court for relief. The plaintiff may ask the court to order the defendant to fulfill the duty or compensate them for the harm they have suffered.

How Do Civil Cases Work?

A civil case goes through these stages:

  • Pleading/filing the case: A civil case begins when the plaintiff files a complaint in the civil court. The defendant may file an answer and other motions. All these make up the pleading.
  • Discovery: The goal at the discovery stage is for parties to gather information from each other to build their cases. 
  • Resolutions before trial: Parties can, at any point before trial, resolve the dispute. The case can also end via a court motion.
  • Trial: During trial, parties present their case before a judge or jury. 
  • Verdict: At the end of the trial, the judge or jury will decide the outcome. The verdict will be either to hold the defendant liable or not and order specific reliefs. 

What Are the Differences Between Criminal Cases and Civil Cases?

There are key areas where criminal cases and civil cases differ.

Who the Alleged Act Is Against

Criminal cases involve offenses against the state. Although particular persons may be the immediate victim — for example, a person who lost their property to burglary — the accused person is deemed to have committed a crime against the state. So, the state will bring a criminal action against them. 

On the other hand, civil cases are legal infractions against an individual or organization. For example, if a person’s negligence caused a car accident and damaged your vehicle, it’s a civil offense. And it’s up to you to decide whether to file a claim against them or not.


If a defendant in a criminal case is found guilty, they often face imprisonment, a fine, or both. They can also lose some rights they had before. For example, if you are guilty of driving under the influence (DUI), part of the punishment in some states may include suspension of your driver’s license.

However, the punishment in a civil case is always monetary or an order to perform an action or refrain from acting, known as an injunction. Prison time cannot be sought in a civil case.

Standard of Proof

The standard of proof required to secure a conviction in a criminal case is higher than what is required in a civil case. The law is that everyone accused of committing a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The prosecution has to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means they must show the jury that from the evidence admitted, there’s no other reasonable explanation other than that the defendant committed the crime.

The standard of proof in a civil case is the preponderance of evidence, which means to show that something is more likely than not. This is an easier standard to meet than beyond a reasonable doubt.

Application of the Constitution

The defendant in a criminal case has some constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as the right to remain silent. Other rights defendants have include the right to an attorney, the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to a jury trial, and the right to confront witnesses who testified against them via cross-examination. On the other hand, the defendant in a civil case may not have all these rights. 

Right to Appeal

The right to appeal a court decision exists in both civil and criminal cases. However, there’s a difference in how it applies in criminal and civil cases. 

In criminal cases, the defendant, if found guilty, can appeal the conviction. But, the rule against double jeopardy bars the prosecution from appealing an acquittal. So, if the jury or judge gives a verdict of not guilty, the prosecution cannot appeal the decision.

However, in a civil case, any of the parties who are not happy with the decision may be able to appeal it to a higher court. 


U. S. Department of Justice: Discovery

Govinfo.org: Rights of Accused in Criminal Prosecutions

Cornell Law School: Reprosecution After Acquittal

Morris & Dewett provides this information to the public for general education and interest. The firm does not represent clients in every topic discussed in answers to frequent questions. The information is curated and produced based on questions commonly asked or search terms commonly used. Every effort is made to provide accurate information. Do not make any decision solely based on the information provided, please seek relevant counsel for each topic area. Consult an attorney before making any legal decision, consult a doctor before making any medical decision, and consult a financial advisor before making any fiscal decision. Information provided is not legal advice. If you have any legal needs, please do not hesitate to contact us. We are pleased to assist you.

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