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The Avery Netflix Documentary: The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Legal Actions

Manitowoc County Lawyers

The documentary “Making a Murderer” has media buzzing all over the country. The true tale of the Avery and Dassey families’ alleged run-ins with the law took place in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, making the series all the more fascinating to those of us that actually reside in Wisconsin. Regardless of what side of the spectrum your opinions of the criminal case(s) rest, we can likely all agree that the documentary series provided an interesting perspective and look at some of the various complexities of our legal system. While the emphasis of “Making a Murderer” is on the criminal justice system, equally interesting and important issues arise in the civil context as well.

Understanding Criminal Versus Civil Actions

You have likely heard a lawyer or someone in the media explain that a civil action is any legal action that is not criminal. This is true to an extent; at its simplest form, crimes are defined by statute and code (i.e. law) and generally carry jail time as a punishment, where civil charges generally involve sums of money or social injustices. The biggest difference between the two areas of law is that civil actions plot a wrongdoer against a victim, whether the parties are individuals or corporations. In criminal actions, the victim may be identifiable, but the crime is really viewed as a crime against society or against the State. This is why the State, through District Attorneys and Special Prosecutors, prosecute criminal cases.

This important difference is evident from the way cases are brought to court. The action that begins all civil cases and many state-level criminal cases is the filing of a complaint. Consider the following:

Civil Cases Criminal Cases
Commenced by a Complaint Commenced by a Complaint, Information, or Indictment
Brought by the victim against the wrongdoer Brought by the state or municipality against the wrongdoer
Discovery generally allowed (the gathering of information between the parties before trial) Discovery generally limited (criminal defendants have a right to certain information that may tend to show their innocence)
Penalties generally monetary Penalties generally involve probation, fines, or jail time
A right to an attorney is not guaranteed You are afforded the right to an attorney
If the defendant is found responsible he is considered “liable” If the defendant is found responsible he is considered “guilty”
To find the defendant liable, the judge or jury must find the defendant liable by a preponderance of the evidence To find the defendant liable, the judge or jury must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt
There is not a legal presumption given of liability versus non-liability There is a presumption of innocence

Depending on the nature of the crime, some cases may have both criminal and civil components, though these cases will be tried completely separately. A clear example of this is a driving while intoxicated case wherein the driver is involved in an accident. In this example, the driver could be prosecuted criminally by the State for the violation of the law (after a first offense). However, the driver could also be liable civilly and sued by any parties who sustained injuries in the crash.

Understanding the Burden of Proof

The burden of proof, or the level to which the judge or jury must be convinced a defendant is liable or guilty, is possibly the biggest divide between civil and criminal actions. The idea of a burden of proof in our legal system has vexed legal scholars and critics, making it difficult to come to a consensus about what these burdens should mean. Black’s Law Dictionary, the leading authority on legal terminology, defines each as the following:

  • Preponderance of the Evidence: “The greater weight of the evidence, not necessarily established by the greater number of witnesses testifying to a fact but by evidence that has the most convincing force; superior evidentiary weight that, though not sufficient to free the mind wholly from all reasonable doubt, is still sufficient to include a fair and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than the other.”

This is also frequently referred to as “more likely than not.”

  • Reasonable Doubt: “The doubt that prevents one from being firmly convinced of a defendant’s guilt, or the belief that there is a real possibility that a defendant is not guilty.”

To return a guilty verdict in a criminal case, the jury must be satisfied “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The burden in civil cases is not as high. To recover damages in a civil case, a plaintiff must satisfy the “preponderance of evidence” burden.

Experienced Appleton, Wisconsin Attorneys

Because of crime dramas, both fact and fiction, society has adopted a disproportionate understanding of the legal system. Most media coverage surrounds criminal actions, leading people to believe that the standard for every case is beyond a reasonable doubt. This belief can be damaging in a civil action that requires a far less exacting standard.

At Herrling Clark Law Firm, Ltd., we have the litigation experience necessary to explain the differences between civil and criminal actions to a jury and our clients, and ensure your case is brought in a favorable standard. We have developed courtroom tactics that have proven effective in advocating for our clients, regardless of whether in a personal injury, estate, or family law action. To learn more about our legal services, contact our experienced Appleton attorneys at (920) 739-7366 today.

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Herrling Clark Law Firm Ltd. is located in Appleton, Wisconsin, and serves clients in Fox Valley, Outagamie County, Brown County, Door County, Kewaunee County, Manitowoc County, Sheboygan County, Fond du Lac County, Calumet County, Winnebago County, including Appleton, New London, Clintonville, Neenah, Oshkosh, DePere, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Kewaunee, Sturgeon Bay, Marinette, Neenah, Chilton, Menasha, Shawano, Waupaca, Wausau, and Green Bay, Wisconsin.
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