Differences Between a Criminal Case and a Civil Case

Wrongdoing is addressed under two different types of cases: criminal and civil. Civil cases generally involve disputes between individuals. These cases are disputed through civil lawsuits.

Criminal cases, on the other hand, are considered offenses against the state, or society as a whole. The state is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases.

While there may be some overlap between civil and criminal cases, an important distinction between them are the legal standards of proof.

In every case brought to trial, be that criminal or civil, one side carries the “burden of proof.” The burden of proof in criminal cases, for instance, generally lies with the prosecution. This means the prosecution is responsible for presenting evidence that the defendant has committed a crime.

Standard of proof, on the other hand, refers to the degree of evidence needed to establish proof in a criminal or civil proceeding. There are several standards of proof, depending on the type of case being pursued. Which standard applies is dependent on the severity and type of charge. For example, the more serious the consequences, the higher the standard of proof is likely to be.

Preponderance of the evidence is the lowest standard of proof and is the default for most civil lawsuits. Clear and convincing proof is another standard of proof used in civil actions involving fraud, for example. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the most demanding standard and the one that must be met for a criminal conviction.

Criminal cases involve two common standards used by judges to determine pretrial hearings: reasonable suspicion and probable cause. These standards are often examined when a motion to suppress evidence is filed by a defendant.

The reasonable suspicion standard most often applies to criminal search and seizure procedures. Officers are required to have an objectively reasonable explanation for detaining and conducting a pat-down of a suspect.

Probable cause, on the other hand, is the standard by which judges evaluate police actions.  This standard requires reasonable grounds for making a search, pressing a charge, etc. Suspicion that a suspect has committed a crime is not enough to withhold a probable cause standard.

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest legal standard of a criminal case. In order to prove a defendant guilty of a crime, the Constitution requires this standard to be met.

According to this standard, simply believing a defendant is guilty is not enough. Evidence must be convincing and show that no reasonable person would question the defendant’s guilt. Under this standard, the evidence must prove there is no logical explanation or conclusion to a crime other than the defendant’s guilt.

Navigating Massachusetts criminal law is very complex. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, you need an attorney who is well-versed in criminal law. Contact our office today to discuss your case.


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