There are two distinct types of actions or lawsuits available in the United States – civil actions and criminal actions. The rules for each, the responsibilities of the court, and the rights of defendants differ considerably in both type and the outcomes can differ greatly. This article provides a brief overview of the court process in the United States.

Criminal Process

In a criminal action, the federal or state government prosecutes, in the name of the people, a defendant charged with violating a criminal law. In most criminal cases in the United States, there exists a presumption of innocence. That is, the defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution and the level of proof, or the standard of proof, required is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is, the prosecutor must convince the Court that the criminal charge in the given case is true “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The standard of proof is high in part because of the gravity of the potential outcomes in a criminal action. The penalties available are usually set out in the relevant criminal statute and they typically include a range of fines or prison time a court can impose for a given offense. In general, more severe penalties are imposed for more serious offenses and in some jurisdictions on repeat offenders.

Defendants in criminal actions are afforded a number of rights some of which are set out and protected by the U.S. Constitution. Among these rights are: the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures (4th Amendment), the right against self-incrimination (5th Amendment), and the right to a speedy trial (6th Amendment). In addition to these rights, a criminal defendant is also afforded the right to counsel. If a criminal defendant in federal and state court cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one, most often the public defender. Finally, if a criminal defendant is acquitted, the prosecution’s right to appeal is virtually nonexistent.

Civil Process

Civil actions involve two or more private parties where at least one party alleges a violation of a statute or some provision of the common law. Cases involving breaches of contracts or injuries that are the result of negligence (i.e., tort law, which allows an injured individual to recover damages from someone who is responsible or liable for those injuries) are both examples of

civil cases. The party initiating the lawsuit is the plaintiff while the party answering to the lawsuit is the defendant.

The standard of proof in civil trials is generally on the “balance of probabilities,” also known as the “preponderance of evidence.” This standard of proof is much lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt” and will usually be met if there is more than a 50 % chance that the allegations are true or more simply, if it is more probable than not.

The many rights afforded to criminal defendants are not necessarily provided to the defendant in a civil trial. For example, in civil cases, the defendant does not have a right to counsel and is not protected against self-incrimination. For example, while O.J. Simpson was not required to testify in his criminal trial, he was required to testify at his civil trial. Many believe that his testimony coupled with the lower standard of proof accounts for the finding of liability in the wrongful death suit as opposed to the acquittal in his criminal trial.

Judges and Juries

In many civil and criminal cases, defendants are afforded the option of having their case heard before a judge alone or a judge and jury. If the defendant elects to have the case heard before a judge alone, the judge will be the arbiter of both the law and of the facts. That is, the judge will decide both matters of law (e.g., which evidence to allow, how motions should be decided) and the facts of the case (e.g., decide which parties to believe, decide what actually transpired). The judge will therefore decide whether or not the prosecution or plaintiff has met the burden of proof and ultimately whether the defendant should be found guilty or liable. In judge and jury trials, the judge will decide matters of law while the jury hears the evidence and reaches a decision about guilt or liability.

Juries are made up of lay people, often referred to as a jury of one’s peers. The jury is selected at random through a predefined procedure. In order to be eligible for jury duty, you must be at least 18 years of age, be a U.S. citizen and have no felony convictions. Based on the facts presented at trial including the testimony of witnesses and the presentation of documents and based on expert witnesses and legal arguments, the jury will decide on the liability or guilt of a defendant. In coming to their decision, the jury must apply legal principles as explained by the judge. For example, a jury in a criminal trial must in making their decision apply the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof.

Excerpted from: Roesch, R., Zapf, P. A., & Hart, S. D. (2010). Forensic psychology and law. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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