When someone commits a crime, we typically think about what they could be facing in terms of criminal consequences: probation, imprisonment, and perhaps a fine. However, there is an entirely other side of the coin, and that has to do with the civil liability they may be facing.
Criminal vs. Civil liability: similarities and differences
Someone who has committed a crime faces a number of problems. On the criminal side, he or she can be looking at a loss of freedom, consequences in terms of restrictions on things such as owning a gun or voting, and so on. Of course, before any of these consequences can be imposed on them, they first must be found guilty of the crime, which means going to trial.
A criminal trial is conducted a little bit differently than a civil trial: the standard of proof is usually higher, meaning that the state must make a better showing of guilt than someone who was simply suing for damages would. Further, the rules of evidence are often tighter in a criminal case, meaning that evidence that might be accepted in a civil lawsuit could be excluded in a criminal trial. Finally, there are more constitutional protections for those who are being criminally accused than there are for those who are being civilly sued.
The outcomes can be different, too: while someone who is guilty of a crime may be fined, generally money damages are the only remedy available in a civil lawsuit (except for things such as specific performance, which are outside the scope of this blog post).
Because the standard of proof is lower in a civil proceeding than in a criminal case, it is not unheard of for someone to be found innocent in a criminal trial and yet be ordered to pay damages in a civil trial over the same occurrence (think about the OJ Simpson trials).
Using evidence from one proceeding in another
If someone admits to a certain action in a civil suit, this admission can be used against him or her in the criminal trial. What’s more, although the Fifth Amendment protects someone from being forced to testify against himself in a criminal trial, no comparable protection is afforded to someone who is being sued. This means that someone who is accused of a crime—and who also faces civil liability—is well advised to consult an experienced attorney before answering questions in a deposition or other similar proceeding.