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Leonardo Angiulo: The Differences Between Criminal and Civil Cases

Monday, September 24, 2012


Civil and Criminal Trials are almost identical proceedings.  They sound similar and they follow the same order but there are some very important distinctions.  One of the most important differences is the burden of proof a plaintiff must meet.  To prevent me from losing your interest, let me say it this way: this column is all about what it takes to win at trial.

When a person or entity files an action with a court they become the plaintiff.  As the plaintiff they have the obligation to bring the evidence necessary to meet the elements of their cause of action.  So, for example, in a personal injury case a plaintiff must show that a defendant was negligent, that the negligence caused injuries to the plaintiff along with what those injuries were.  In a criminal case charging drunk driving, the Commonwealth, as the plaintiff, must show the defendant operated a motor vehicle, on a public way, while under the influence of alcohol.

Of course, not just any evidence will do.  It is the weight of the evidence offered that makes the difference. In a civil trial, the plaintiff is required to prove their case on a preponderance of the evidence.  In a criminal case, the Commonwealth must show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  These standards are defined within the relevant jury instructions, are applied by judges in jury waived trials, and are designed to apply objective standards to subjective evaluations of fact. 

On a preponderance of the evidence

Going back to the example of a personal injury case, once all the witnesses have testified and closing arguments have been given the jury returns to the deliberation room.  While there, they are left with their memory of the evidence and the judge's instructions.  These jury instructions are standardized and require a jury to weigh all the evidence.  After doing so, a matter is proved by a preponderance of the evidence if it is more probably true than not true.

A central requirement of this finding is an actual belief in the truth of the plaintiff's claim based on evidence.  What evidence meets this burden is the difficult question of fact that only a jury or judge can decide in a given case.  For context, in a car accident case there may be a question of whether the defendant caused injury to the plaintiff.

In some cases it may be easy for a plaintiff to meet this burden.  In our first hypothetical, plaintiff is a three sport high school athlete on the way to baseball practice.  As a result of the accident she is in traction for two weeks and has reconstructive surgery to her ankle.  Here is a clear distinction between the plaintiff's condition before and after the accident.

In other cases it may not be as simple.  What if the accident results in that same plaintiff suffering severe headaches and depression as a result of the debilitating injuries.  The burden is on the plaintiff to bring evidence that meets the burden of proof that these conditions do, in fact, exist. Given that every case is different, I cannot possibly tell you readers what would be sufficient evidence but some examples might be witness testimony or medical records.  Of course, whether the witnesses are believable is exactly the type of question that only the finder of fact can answer.

Beyond a reasonable doubt

The burden of proof in criminal cases is as iconic as Budweiser and apple pie.  As early as elementary school American kids know the words "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" and "innocent until proven guilty."  Of course, knowing what these words really mean may not come until later on.  These are terms that have been around for a long time and can be tough to define. 

Interestingly, the standard jury instruction for the burden of proof in criminal cases comes from 1850.  Since that time, some words might have fallen out of common use but the underlying principles remain fundamental to our system of justice.  Unlike civil cases, it is not enough to establish even a strong possibility that the charge is more likely true than not.  In a criminal case, the Commonwealth must establish the truth of the crime charged to a reasonable and moral certainty.  Just like a civil case, the burden is on the Commonwealth as plaintiff to bring the evidence and the finder of fact, either judge or jury, to weigh all the evidence presented.  There are, however, some important differences.   

Criminal cases, at the end of the day, put a person's freedom at stake.  The significance of the outcome is reflected by several aspects of the instructions unique to criminal cases.  First, there is the requirement that the Commonwealth prove each and every element of the charge against them.  In addition, the instructions remind jurors that a criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  Now, while everything in the world may be subject to some possible doubt, the jury is instructed to focus on whether the evidence satisfies their reason and judgement.  If the Commonwealth fails to meet their burden the defendant is entitled to the presumption of innocence and an acquittal.

Applying the burdens of proof to get verdicts

These burdens of proof are the standards by which our courts render their decisions.  They have been applied consistently for generations and, with a little luck, will continue to be used for generations more.  


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