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Following O.J. Simpson’s acquittal for the murders of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, Ronald’s family and estate and Nicole’s estate brought civil actions against O.J. In these actions they alleged that O.J. murdered Ronald and Nicole. This prompted many people to wonder, “How could O.J. be tried twice for the same actions?” The answer to this question requires an understanding of the differences between civil and criminal actions. When the State of California tried O.J. for the murders of Nicole and Ronald that was a criminal trial. Following his acquittal, O.J. could not face a second criminal trial for murder. The second actions filed against O.J. were civil actions for wrongful death and survival. Ronald’s parents and Ronald’s estate and Nicole’s estate pursued these actions. The O.J. trials demonstrate several of the key differences between criminal and civil actions. First, the parties who are permitted to pursue criminal and civil actions differ. Second, the societal justifications differ for criminal and civil actions. Third, there are different procedural rules and requirements for criminal and civil actions.

Basic Differences Between Criminal & Civil Actions

Criminal actions are complaints brought by the state or federal government against parties accused of violating a law. Civil actions are defined as any non-criminal actions and involve private rights and remedies. Some examples include torts (such as negligence), contracts, real estate issues, wills and trusts, and family law matters. A primary and easily recognizable difference between civil and criminal actions is the party who is permitted to bring the action. Only the state or federal government may prosecute criminal actions. When they prosecute a criminal action they are acting on behalf of the citizens of the state or the United States. Both private citizens and the state and federal government can bring civil actions. When the state or federal government brings a civil action, it is acting on behalf of the citizens of the state or United States and when private citizens file civil actions, they are acting on their own behalf. The terminology used to describe the parties in civil and criminal actions also differs. In criminal cases the party pursuing the action is called the state or the prosecutor and the party charged with the crime is the defendant, or, the accused. In civil actions, the party pursuing the action is called the plaintiff and the party responding to the action is called the defendant.

Another difference between criminal and civil actions is the societal purpose or justification for the action. The criminal law system is the state’s primary instrument for preventing people from intentionally or recklessly harming one another. Its general purpose is to punish individuals found guilty of violating the law. Scholars identify several purposes for punishment: restraint, reform, deterrence rehabilitation, and retribution. In contrast, the purpose of a civil proceeding is generally not to punish a defendant but to compensate the wronged party. This is often accomplished through monetary compensation, but courts may also fashion equitable remedies such as requiring a particular action to be taken or stopped.

In both civil and criminal actions, the basic progress through the judicial system is the same. The pleadings or formal allegations of the parties regarding their claims are filed. The parties undertake discovery to obtain facts and information about the case. A trial is held at which the evidence is presented, witnesses are heard, and judgment is rendered. Then, in most cases, the parties have a right to appeal the result of the trial.

There are, however, many significant differences in the rules and procedures governing the progress of actions through the civil and criminal justice systems. For instance, in a civil proceeding, the action is commenced when the complaint is filed with the clerk of court and, depending on the jurisdiction, served on the defendant with a summons. In a criminal action, however, the process is more complex. After the defendant is arrested and the police officer drafts the complaint, a magistrate judge conducts a preliminary review of the arrest and complaint. This review is designed to insure that there is sufficient incriminating information to establish “probable cause” to believe that the defendant committed the crimes alleged in the complaint. If the magistrate determines the complaint is adequate to establish probable cause, the complaint is filed.

There is also a difference in the scope of criminal and civil discovery. In a civil proceeding, anything relevant to the case that is not privileged is discoverable. In contrast, discovery under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure is highly restricted, reflecting the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself and the Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses. The contrast is illustrated by the differences in the civil and criminal deposition process. Under the civil rules, parties may depose all parties to the action and any other person necessary to obtain testimony relevant to the subject matter. Under the criminal rules, however, only depositions of a party’s own witnesses may be taken, and then only pursuant to a court order.

Because the consequences in civil actions are less serious than those in criminal actions,the due process requirements for civil actions are less stringent than those for criminal actions. That is, there are fewer procedural safeguards in a civil action because there is no risk of lost liberty through physical incarceration or stigmatization due to a wrongful conviction. Some of the constitutionally required due process safeguards in a criminal proceeding are the right to know what crime you have been charged with, the right to counsel, the right not to incriminate oneself, the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to have your guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the state.

The constitution guarantees litigants in civil actions the right to notice of the action and an opportunity to be heard. It also shapes procedural requirements for personal jurisdiction (that is the judicial power to enter judgments with respect to particular defendants or property). But, in a civil action, there is no right to a speedy trial; although, some court administration systems set time limits for the completion of civil actions. The burden of proof in a civil action is also less than that in a criminal action. The party bringing a civil action must generally prove his or her case by a “preponderance of the evidence” as opposed to the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Therefore, if a defendant is acquitted in a criminal action and a subsequent civil action is filed, all the issues may be relitigated in the civil action, because evidence which fails to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt may still be sufficient to meet the civil preponderance of the evidence standard. This is one of the reasons it was possible for O.J. to be found liable for the wrongful death of Ronald but not guilty of his murder.

Criminal actions are complaints brought by the state or federal government against parties accused of violating a law. In contrast, civil actions involve private rights and remedies. Common examples of civil actions are negligence, breach of contract and real estate matters. Three primary differences between civil and criminal actions are: (1) the parties who may bring the actions, (2) the societal purposes for the actions, and (3) the procedural rules and requirements for prosecuting criminal and civil actions.

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The information provided on this website should not be used in any legal decision you are making as it is NOT legal advice and should only be used as general background information. Furthermore, nothing on this website should be construed as creating an attorney/client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact The Davidoff Law Firm, PLLC and speak with an attorney. Aaron Resnick and Derek Schwartz are attorneys who are affiliated with the Davidoff Law Firm, PLLC and are not members of the firm.