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Understanding Criminal Law: The Basics

Navigating the complexities of the legal system can be challenging. At Jackson Law, we believe in empowering our clients with knowledge. Let’s explore the differences between criminal and civil cases, helping you discern one from the other.

Court cases are generally classified into two distinct categories: criminal and civil. The distinction lies in what each case type entails and the implications for those involved.

Criminal legal proceedings come into play when the state aims to sanction someone for actions deemed illegal by federal or state laws. Contrastingly, civil cases revolve around disagreements concerning the legal obligations individuals and entities owe one another. Here are some key variances:

  • Criminal charges are pursued by a prosecutor who represents the state’s interests—not solely the victim’s. This contrasts with civil cases, where the aggrieved party initiates the lawsuit. Although, if considering the prosecutor as representing the community harmed by the crime, similarities emerge.
  • Conviction in a criminal case can result in fines, incarceration, or both. In civil matters, the defendant may be ordered to pay compensation or surrender property but is not sentenced to imprisonment.
  • In criminal trials, defendants who are unable to afford legal assistance may receive representation at the government’s expense. Conversely, in civil disputes, participants typically must either self-represent or hire private attorneys.
  • The burden of proof differs vastly: a criminal conviction requires establishing guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, whereas civil liability is determined on the balance of probabilities—a ‘preponderance of the evidence’.
  • Criminal defendants are nearly always entitled to have their case heard by a jury. In civil cases, the right to a jury is available for certain disputes but not universally.
  • Civil defendants might find themselves jailed for contempt but this is distinct from criminal incarceration, a reflection of the different natures of civil and criminal contempt.

Instances exist where an act can infringe upon both criminal and civil statutes. For example, an individual may find themselves facing criminal charges by the state and, separately, a civil lawsuit for damages. This was the case with O. J. Simpson, who, following an acquittal in his criminal murder trial in 1995, was subsequently found civilly liable for the wrongful deaths in 1997 and required to pay substantial damages.

At Jackson Law, we are committed to guiding you through your legal journey with clarity and dedicated support. If you’re grappling with legal charges or need to understand your rights in a criminal or civil case, reach out to us at 650-587-8556, where skill meets compassion in our pursuit of justice.

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