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Special Characteristics of Criminal Law

Criminal law (rather than civil law) applies when a wrong harms society, as opposed to only individuals. Classic crimes, such as murder, certainly affect the rights of the individual victim. So why are they crimes rather than private lawsuits for personal injuries (torts)? Because they injure the state's ability to keep the peace. (They are also torts in that the victim may go to the civil justice system and sue for redress.) The state will have statutes that make committing murder a crime, that specify the penalty for the crime, and that establish the proof that must be offered to establish the crime. Perhaps the most consistent difference between civil and criminal law is the certainty of proof necessary to find a defendant guilty.

Crimes--violations of the state or federal criminal laws--must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Torts and other civil wrongs must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence. "Preponderance" is taken to mean a majority, 51 percent, or other equivalent measures that imply that the defendant more likely than not committed the act. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is a more difficult standard to define. It defies statistical definition because of the problem of defining reasonable.

The standard of proof is higher in criminal cases for three reasons: (1) the state is a party and may bring unlimited resources to bear on the prosecution of the case; (2) a person's liberty, rather than just money, is at issue; and (3) an injured individual may seek redress through a civil action even if the accused is not prosecuted for a crime.

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