The Difference Between A Civil And Criminal Trial Explained

A flurry of legal headlines constantly seems to be in the news. Depending on the case at hand, the issue might be resolved through a civil case or criminal trial. But what do those two terms really mean? In 2023, Donald Trump was indicted in New York on criminal charges stemming from hush money paid to former adult film star Stormy Daniels, NPR reports. Meanwhile, Trump was also later found liable for sex abuse and defamation in a New York state civil case brought by E. Jean Carroll and fined $5 million, according to The New York Times.

Per FindLaw, there are several reasons one set of charges against the former president was settled in a civil case, while the other could bring about a criminal trial. Chief among them is that the latter issues — Trump's indictments regarding hush money paid to Daniels and violations of campaign finance law — are an offense against the "state," or society at large, and as such are prosecutable by the government. The former charges, however, relate to incidents between two private individuals and are therefore eligible for civil trial. But while those are the basics, things are rarely so cut and dry.

Certain crimes can be settled both in civil cases and criminal trials

For example, in 2019, E. Jean Carroll — the litigant against Donald Trump for rape and defamation — brought a criminal lawsuit against Trump on those charges, but it got held up on a technicality: Trump's status as president at that time. In a legal caveat, sexual assault — among other crimes — is eligible for both criminal and civil prosecution, FindLaw elsewhere notes. In light of that fact, when New York passed the Adult Survivors Act, victims of sexual had one year to file litigation even after the statute of limitations had expired. Carroll also filed a civil case, as Forbes explains.

Details of the offense aside, another significant difference between a civil and criminal case lies in the burden of proof. In criminal trials, which are much harder to litigate, defendants must be proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. In contrast, FindLaw notes that the prosecution in a civil case need only present "a preponderance of the evidence" — meaning it's more likely than not that the defendant did what the plaintiff said they did.

Guilty versus liable: What's the difference?

Moreover, the legal definitions of guilty versus liable are crucial to understanding the difference between criminal and civil cases. Guilt is reserved for the gravest offenses and, as a result, is much harder to prove. Accordingly, guilty verdicts bring much stiffer punishment, such as jail time or worse: capital punishment. As most are well aware, in a criminal case with so much at stake, the defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecution.

Liability, on the other hand, typically results in a fine or injunction, something like a legal order stating whatever it was, don't do it again. Which brings us to the jury. In news stories regarding the outcome of E. Jean Carroll's civil case against Donald Trump, it was reported a jury found him liable — but not all civil cases are heard by a jury. Some are settled by a civil court judge in what's called a bench trial. Criminal cases, on the other hand, center on worse offenses and are always heard by a jury, as outlined by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

What about legal representation?

Legal representation is another important point differentiating criminal trials and civil cases. In a criminal trial, defendants always have the right to an attorney, which, like the right to a jury, is protected in the Sixth Amendment. If a defendant can't afford a lawyer, the state must provide one free of charge. In civil cases, on the other hand, there's no such protection. A lawyer may represent a defendant in a civil case, but if the defendant can't pay, then they must represent themselves. Also notable, only a lawyer for the state — such as a district attorney or county prosecutor — can file a criminal case, according to

Meanwhile, civil cases can be filed by private individuals and are always heard in district court, if they go to trial at all — many are settled out of court, as noted by United States Courts. There are also a whole host of protections given to defendants facing criminal prosecution that are not afforded a defendant in a civil case, such as against illegal search and seizure, as mandated in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Although this varies somewhat between jurisdictions and the nature of the civil case, out-of-court settlements between a plaintiff and a defendant do not become public record, as opposed to guilty, not guilty, or acquittal verdicts at the conclusion of criminal trials, per Bernstein Injury Law.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).