The American justice system is split into two areas: the criminal system and the civil system.
In the criminal justice system, the ultimate consequence is an individual’s loss of liberty. In other words, the person may go to prison for violating the law. The civil justice system, on the other hand, typically involves disputes about money damages.
How does someone get into either the criminal or civil justice system?
In the criminal system, the police investigate a criminal complaint or an alleged crime, and present the evidence to a prosecutor. The prosecutor then decides whether to pursue charges against the individual. It’s important to note that, on the criminal side, while ordinary citizens can complain about an alleged violation of law, they do not choose whether to prosecute a person for a crime (i.e., “press charges”) – that’s a decision made by the prosecuting attorney.
The civil justice system is different. In the civil system, a citizen does make the decision whether to file a complaint in court against another person, usually for money damages.
The two systems also have different burdens of proof. In criminal cases, the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt” – a constitutionally mandated principle. In civil cases, the burden of proof is “preponderance of the evidence” – in other words, it’s more likely than not the person being sued is liable.
Another difference between the two systems is that certain constitutional rights apply in criminal cases and not civil cases. For example, the right of people to be free from illegal searches and seizures applies only in criminal cases. The right to a jury trial, while it applies in a civil case, is more robust in the criminal system. Also, the constitutional right to have an attorney only applies in criminal matters.