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In many common law regions, there are two distinct types of court cases: criminal and civil. In a civil case, individuals challenge one another over a dispute regarding rights or laws. Criminal charges, by contrast, are filed by the government and assert that a suspect has committed a crime that violates regional, state, or federal law. These types of charges are generally considered more serious than civil charges and punishable with more severe consequences.
Civil charges are usually filed by a victim, alleging that a crime has been committed against him or her. With criminal charges, a prosecuting body files the charges with the court, taking the matter entirely out of the victim's hands. The legal argument is that the crime committed in a criminal case is committed against the community and the laws of the government; a government prosecutor stands in as a representative of the victims in criminal cases.
Criminal charges can result in severe sentences including fines, imprisonment, and even capital punishment. With such serious issues at hand, most laws require that a criminal case be proven against a suspect beyond any reasonable doubt. With civil charges, imprisonment and death are usually not options, and the burden of proof needed for conviction is somewhat less.
Criminal charges are filed in one of three ways: information, indictment and citation. Citation is typically a notice given by a law officer to a person who has violated a minor law that carries an automatic penalty, such as a traffic ticket. An information is a written document created by a prosecutor that alleges a crime and requests criminal court proceedings. An indictment is filed if a grand jury of citizens hears the facts of a criminal case and decides there is enough evidence to warrant prosecution.
A person charged with criminal charges may be appointed a lawyer if he or she cannot afford or does not wish private counsel. This, too, differs from civil cases, where people often represent themselves or hire a lawyer without court assistance. Most criminal cases are tried by juries as opposed to a single deciding force, such as a judge.
In some cases, civil and criminal charges may be filed for the same offense. If a person is charged with the criminal charge of murder, he or she may also be subject to lawsuits brought in civil court by the victim's family. The trials are conducted separately, and will not necessarily result in identical verdicts. Since less concrete evidence is required to prove a civil case, it is possible to be convicted of civil charges and acquitted of criminal charges.