1. Do criminal and civil cases have different purposes?

The purpose of the criminal law system is to punish the perpetrator for the crime that has been committed against society. The prevailing thought is that this punishment (jail, fine, probation) will deter others from committing similar acts in the future. Some also believe that the purpose of the criminal law system is to help rehabilitate the perpetrator. The focus of the criminal law system is on the perpetrator, the victim is a witness in the state’s case.

The purpose of the civil law system is restitution. It is designed to compensate the crime victim and the surviving family for the physical, emotional and financial losses they have suffered as a result of the crime. The civil case focuses not only on the wrongdoing of the perpetrator/defendant, but also on the damages suffered as a result of that wrongdoing. The goal of a civil case is a financial settlement or verdict that will help compensate the victim or victim’s family for the losses they have suffered as a result of the crime.

2. Do criminal and civil cases have different parties?

In a criminal matter, the case is between the government and the defendant. The government is represented by the prosecuting attorney. The victim has the limited right to participate and provide input, but the ultimate direction of the case rests with the prosecuting attorney. The victim’s rights in a criminal matter are set forth in the Arizona Victim’s Bill of Rights.

A civil case is directly between the victim and the defendant. Sometimes there is a single defendant, but if third parties contributed to the damages, there can be multiple defendants. The crime victim/plaintiff is represented by a private attorney and makes decisions regarding the direction of the case.

3. Do criminal and civil cases have different burdens of proof?

In a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the government, which must prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a very high burden of proof that the U.S. Constitution requires to guard against wrongful convictions.

In a civil case, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the claim by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This burden requires the plaintiff to convince the jury that their claim is more likely true than not. It is a significantly lower burden than the high criminal standard.

4. If the offender has not been charged with a crime, or the prosecutor has declined to prosecute, can I still proceed with a civil case?

Yes. Civil and criminal cases are independent of each other. Formal criminal charges are not a prerequisite to bringing a civil case.

5. Can I still bring a civil case if the defendant was acquitted?

Yes. The best illustration is the O.J. Simpson case. The state failed to prove his criminal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and as a result O.J. Simpson was acquitted. Despite the acquittal, the jurors utilized ta lower burden of proof in the civil case and found O.J. Simpson was liable for wrongful death damages.

6. How long do I have to bring a civil case?

The time limit within which you must bring a civil case varies with the facts of the case. The safest answer is to contact an attorney as soon as you know you have been a victim of a crime. Do not wait until the conclusion of the criminal case or you may lose the right to bring a claim against a third party, such as a bar owner, landlord or other third party that failed to take reasonable steps to protect you from crime.

7. Can a minor bring a civil case?

Yes, a case can be brought on behalf of a minor.