Criminal vs. Civil Cases & How They Differ

If you face a criminal charge or a civil complaint in Texas, you need to know how criminal law and civil law differ. Let us help.

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To understand how criminal law and civil law differ in Texas, you should understand the main types of offenses which prompt such legal actions, and how they proceed to court.

What is criminal law?

A criminal violation is a crime against the state, although individuals may have been victims.

Thus, a criminal charge only can be brought by the government and is filed by a prosecutor. The person charged is the defendant, who can counter with his or her own criminal defense lawyer. (This can be a public defender, but a private attorney is advised.)

In Texas, a criminal charge involves an accusation that the defendant committed a crime listed in the Texas Penal Code. It also lists various punishments. Such criminal acts covered by state laws incude murder, assault, theft, drunk driving or possession of a controlled substance, or illegal drug.

A criminal charge cannot be filed by a private citizen who claims to be a victim of the crime, nor can a criminal charge be dropped at the direction of such a private citizen. Filing a criminal charge and dropping such a charge can only be done by a prosecutor.

What is civil law?

By contrast, civil law doesn’t involve criminal activities but rather allows individuals or entities to claim payment for financial damages illegally inflicted on them by a defendant. They do this by filing a civil lawsuit with help from their personal attorney.

Civil law offenses could include damaging someone’s property or causing them bodily injury in an auto collision. The plaintiff, or complainant, then seeks payments to cover those damages.

Different judgments & punishments

Judgments and punishments in civil cases vs. criminal cases are quite different.

When successful, the result of a civil lawsuit often involves the defendant having to pay the plaintiff an amount specified by the judgment in the case. That amount is known as restitution, or financial compensation.

Many civil law cases are settled out of court through negotiations between attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant. Often, that involves the defendant making some form of payment to the plaintiff, who then agrees to drop the lawsuit. (Unlike in criminal law cases, an individual — not the state — can drop a civil lawsuit.)

In fact, this is the common practice in civil lawsuits. It’s estimated that up to 90 percent of all civil lawsuits are settled out of court via negotiations, with no need for a trial.

Besides disputes over injuries or damages, a civil law case can also involve such things as granting a divorce or child custody, as well as property disputes, bankruptcy, breach of contract and defamation.

In all of these instances, civil law doesn’t involve punishments such as prison time.

By contrast, a criminal law case that goes to trial can lead to far different punishments when a defendant is convicted. Such punishments can include prison time, fines paid to the state, probation or parole. In Texas, criminal law punishment even can include execution.

A criminal case customarily allows for a trial by jury. A civil case often is heard solely by a judge, though a jury also can be involved.

How burden of proof differs

Another difference between criminal and civil law in Texas lies in the burden of proof for the prosecutors.

In a civil case, the burden of proof isn’t as heavy. A civil law attorney may only need to prove a case by citing a “preponderance of evidence” or by citing “clear and convincing standards” to gain a judgment in his or her client’s favor.

By contrast, in a criminal case a prosecutor must prove that the accused is guilty of committing a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

As a result, civil cases have far more flexibility in how they can be resolved. As noted, when a preponderance of evidence is clear, a civil law defense attorney may negotiate with a plaintiff’s attorney to reach a settlement out of court, thus sparing the time and expense of a trial.

A corresponding move in a criminal trial involves a plea bargain agreement. That means, with a defendant’s approval, a criminal defense attorney can seek a lesser charge or lesser punishment for a client by offering a guilty plea in advance of a trial’s completion.

However, unlike in a civil lawsuit’s out-of-court settlement, this kind of plea agreement in a criminal case must be approved by the court — and can be rejected. Also, a plea bargaining strategy may not always be in a defendant’s best interests.

One trial at a time

Given all these differences between civil law and criminal law, it’s important to note that a person can face both a criminal charge and a civil lawsuit for the same offense. This was the case in the infamous O.J. Simpson murder case, when he was successfully sued in civil court for damages by the survivors of victims, even though the criminal charge against him was dropped.

This points to the earlier distinction between the burden of proof for civil cases as opposed to criminal cases. In the criminal case against Simpson, the jury believed the prosecution hadn’t proven his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But that didn’t mean the civil lawsuit against Simpson couldn’t prevail based on a preponderance of evidence.

Keep in mind that these were necessarily two separate legal actions. You cannot be tried for a criminal offense and a civil dispute at the same time. Such legal matters are handled in separate civil and criminal courts. However, a judgment in a criminal case could be cited in a related civil dispute.

Depending on the nature of an offense in a criminal case or the nature of a dispute in a civil complaint, there also may be different statutes of limitations allowing prosecution or lawsuits years after the events in question occurred.

A charge or a lawsuit may not be possible if enough time has elapsed. That would depend on the nature of the individual case and the pertinent Texas statute of limitations.

Hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer

If you or a loved one face a criminal charge, you should seek the best criminal defense lawyer in Texas to represent you in such a serious matter.

Individuals living in Houston, Harris County, Montgomery County or Fort Bend County should contact the Neal Davis Law Firm. We’ll respond by providing a legal review of your case by an experienced criminal defense attorney. Then, you can decide if we are the right law firm for you.

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