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What is a Criminal Case?

There are two fundamentally different types of court cases -- criminal and civil. A criminal case arises when the government seeks to punish an individual for an act that has been classified as a crime by Congress or a state legislature. A civil case, on the other hand, usually has to do with a dispute over the rights and duties that individuals and organizations legally owe to each other. Among the important differences between criminal and civil cases are these:

  • In a criminal case a prosecutor, not the crime victim, initiates and controls the case. The prosecutor may file criminal charges even if the victim doesn't approve, or refuse to file criminal charges despite the victim's desire that criminal charges be filed. This method of beginning the case contrasts with civil cases where the injured party is the one who starts the ball rolling -- although if you view the prosecutor as a stand-in for the community injured by a crime, then there's not much difference.
     
  • A person convicted of a crime may pay a fine or be incarcerated or both. People who are held responsible in civil cases may have to pay money damages or give up property, but do not go to jail or prison. (We don't have "debtors' prisons" for those who can't pay a civil judgment.)
     
  • In criminal cases, government-paid lawyers represent defendants who want but can't afford an attorney. Parties in civil cases, on the other hand, usually have to represent themselves or pay for their own lawyers. (Juvenile court cases and cases involving civil contempt of court where jail is a possibility, are exceptions to this general rule.)
     
  • In criminal cases, the prosecutor has to prove a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." In a civil case, the plaintiff has to show only by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more than 50%) that the defendant is liable for damages.
     
  • Defendants in criminal cases are almost always entitled to a jury trial. A party to a civil action is entitled to a jury trial in some types of cases, but not in others.
     
  • Defendants in civil cases may be jailed for contempt, as happened to Susan McDougal in the Whitewater case.

How Do You Get Charged With A Crime

Police officers usually start the charging process with an arrest or citation. They then send copies of their reports to a prosecutor's office staffed by government lawyers whose job it is to initiate and prosecute criminal cases. The prosecutor is supposed to either:

  • make an independent decision as to what charges should be filed, or
     
  • in felony cases, enlist the help of citizens serving as grand jurors in deciding what charges to file.

Prosecutors can look at all the circumstances of a case, including the suspect's past criminal record. They can file charges on all crimes for which the police arrested a suspect, can file charges that are more or less severe than the charges leveled by the police, or can decide to not file any charges at all.

Prosecutors base their initial charging decisions on the documents sent to them by the arresting police officers (usually called police or arrest reports). Arrest reports summarize the events leading up to arrests and provide numerous other details, such as dates, time, location, weather conditions and witnesses' names and addresses if that information is available.

If the prosecutor decides to file a complaint rather than present the case to a grand jury, and the case is a felony, the defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing at which the prosecutor must show that the state has enough evidence of the crime to convict the defendant. However, if the case proceeds by grand jury indictment, no preliminary hearing need be held. This means that most prosecutors choose the grand jury indictment process so that they don't have to produce as much evidence before the trial.

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