What’s the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Law?

What’s the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Law?

The burden of proof is the biggest difference between criminal and civil law. Plaintiffs must prove personal injury and other civil cases by a preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not.1 Prosecutors must prove assault, murder, and other criminal cases beyond any reasonable doubt. That’s the primary reason disgraced football star O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges and found liable for the deaths of two people. There simple wasn’t enough credible evidence for prosecutors to convict him in criminal court. More on that below.

Furthermore, the purpose of these two court systems is different, especially in the aforementioned murder, assault, and other violent criminal cases. Although there might be some overlap, for the most part, criminal courts punish offenders and civil courts compensate victims.

Finally, people can technically represent themselves in criminal or civil court. But without a Rochester criminal defense lawyer, it’s almost impossible to successfully resolve a criminal case. These individuals almost always receive the maximum punishment. The same thing is true in civil court, especially if the adverse party has an attorney. Most civil court proceedings are nothing like Judge Judy. They are much more complex.

Finding the Right Lawyer

Because attorneys are so important in court, finding the right one is job one. New York has more attorneys per capita than almost any other state. Nevertheless, good attorneys do not grow on trees. As you shop for lawyers, look for the following qualities:

  • Dedication: If your foot hurts, you should see a podiatrist. Likewise, if you have a family law issue, you should see a family law attorney, and if you have a criminal law issue, you should see a Rochester criminal defense attorney.
  • Experience: In law school, aspiring criminal and civil lawyers learn to think like lawyers. Only practical experience teaches them how to act like lawyers. Additionally, although most claims settle out of court, your attorney should have trial experience as well.
  • Accessibility: There are a lot of lawyers in the Empire State, but that doesn’t mean they are accessible to their clients. Your lawyer, and not a legal assistant, should do most of the work on your case and be available to answer your questions.

When a client partners with the right lawyer, the remainder of the case is often downhill, although challenges remain. If a client partners with the wrong lawyer, the case will be a nightmare that keeps getting worse.

Rules of Evidence

We mentioned the different burdens of proof in civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions. On a related note, the rules of evidence are different as well.

Illegally-obtained evidence is inadmissible in criminal court. Common violations include Fourth Amendment search and seizure issues and Fifth Amendment illegal interrogation issues.

Searches and seizure are only legal if officers have search warrants based on probable cause affidavits or the search and seizure was reasonable. Courts have narrowly defined “reasonable” searches to situations like owner consent, which is basically a waiver of a Fourth Amendment right.

Speaking of waivers, the Supreme Court recently ruled that if defendants don’t affirmatively asserts their Fifth Amendment rights (e.g. “I have a Constitutional right not to talk to you”), they waive these rights.

These provisions only apply to criminal proceedings. So, illegally obtained evidence is often admissible in civil court. However, the method could affect the evidence.

If Tina rifles through Ben’s desk drawer and finds incriminating evidence, like a receipt, that evidence is admissible in a civil case. However, although Tina has not committed a crime or done anything illegal, she looks very bad. So, the receipt or other evidence could do more harm than good. Only a Rochester criminal defense lawyer can make difficult decisions like this one.

Resolving Civil and Criminal Cases

Criminal and civil cases are different in many ways. However, they’re the same in other areas, most notably how these matters are resolved. Over 90 percent of civil and criminal claims settle out of court.2 These resolutions avoid the risk of a trial, reduce legal fees, save time, and give the litigants more control over the outcome.

Settlement negotiations in civil cases are usually quite formal. Generally, both sides meet with a mediator. This mediator, who is usually an unaffiliated lawyer, knows how to bring two sides together, even when they seem far apart.

Plea bargain negotiations in criminal court are usually more informal. A Rochester criminal defense lawyer leverages defenses in the case, like the aforementioned procedural issues, to reduce the charges, arrange for a plea to a lesser-included offense, or reduce the defendant’s punishment.

To many clients, an out-of-court settlement feels like a defeat. But a favorable settlement is a win. A bird in the hand is always worth two in the bush.

There’s a big difference between a criminal arrest and a criminal conviction. For a free consultation with an experienced Rochester, NY criminal attorney, contact the Law Office of Frank Ciardi. We routinely handle matters in Monroe County and nearby jurisdictions.



[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/preponderance_of_the_evidence

[2] https://thelawdictionary.org/article/what-percentage-of-lawsuits-settle-before-trial-what-are-some-statistics-on-personal-injury-settlements/