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Criminal Law Basics

A criminal case arises when either the federal or state government seeks to punish an individual for an act that is a crime. Whereas a civil case typically deals with a dispute over rights and duties that individuals and entities owe to one another. Some differences between criminal and civil matters are listed below.
  • In a criminal case, a prosecutor handles the case on behalf of the federal government or state.
  • In a civil case, the victim or wronged party sues a defendant.
  • If a defendant is convicted of a crime she may be required to pay a fine, be incarcerated or both.
  • In a civil case, one held responsible might be required to pay money damages, return property, or cease from engaging in a certain activity. They will not be sentenced to jail or prison.
  • In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • In a civil case, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant is guilty by a preponderance of the evidence, more than 50 percent.
  • In a criminal case, a defendant is almost always entitled to a jury trial.
  • In a civil case, a defendant is only entitled to a jury trial in certain cases.

Felonies vs. Misdemeanors

Most jurisdictions break crimes up into two groups, felonies and misdemeanors. A crime is typically considered a felony when the potential punishment for the offense is longer than one-year imprisonment. A crime is typically considered a misdemeanor when the potential punishment is less than one-year imprisonment. Some states have what are referred to as "wobblers." Those are offenses that may be either classified as misdemeanors or felonies given the potential punishment.

Presumption of Innocence

A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty by way of a conviction or pleading guilty to a charged offense. A prosecutor is required to prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a judge or jury. The defendant is not required to present a defense or say or do anything in his own defense. If the prosecutor is unable to persuade the judge or jury that the defendant is guilty of the offense charged, the defendant is acquitted or found not guilty, and is permitted to go free.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

A prosecutor must convince the judge or jury that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a tough standard to meet. Because of the high burden, the judge or jury is required to resolve all doubts about conflicting evidence or testimony in favor of the defendant.