Unlike a civil case in which one person, business, or agency sues another one because of a dispute between them (usually involving money), criminal cases arise when the government files a case in court to punish someone (the defendant) for committing a crime. If the defendant is found guilty of a crime, he or she may face jail or prison.
Criminal v. Civil Cases
There are important differences between criminal cases and civil cases. Most significantly, if someone loses a civil case, they may be ordered to pay the other side money or to give up property, but they will not go to jail just for losing the case. Additionally, in a criminal case, the government must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas in a civil case, the plaintiff must only prove his or her case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that a party to a civil case can win if he or she is able to convince the judge or jury that his or her side of the case is slightly more convincing than the other side’s.
Civil and criminal cases also differ in that in criminal cases involving a misdemeanor or a felony, the defendant has a right to be represented by a qualified attorney. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one without cost to the defendant. In civil cases, on the other hand, if a party cannot afford a lawyer, he or she will need to proceed without an attorney. Additionally, in most criminal cases, defendants have the right to a trial by jury, whereas in civil cases, there are many types of cases where there is no right to a trial by jury.
Types of Criminal Offenses
California’s criminal statutes identify a wide range of illegal conduct that is made punishable by sanctions like imprisonment and fines. Crimes fall within three primary categories: infractions, misdemeanors and felonies.
An infraction is a minor violation, such as many traffic violations. The punishment for infractions is usually a fine, and if the defendant pays the fine, there is no jail time.
A misdemeanor is a crime with a maximum punishment of either 6 months or 1 year in a county jail, and typically up to $1,000 fine. Common misdemeanors include petty theft, vandalism, DUI, and driving with a suspended license.
A felony is the most serious kind of crime. If found guilty, the defendant can be sent to jail or prison for a year or more, or even receive the death penalty for very serious crimes. Defendants convicted of felonies are usually sent to state prison for sentences of 16 months or more. These types of crimes include, for example, robbery, murder, rape, and certain drug offenses.