Lawyer discussing a man's criminal case.

The Difference Between Criminal and Civil Cases in Texas

No matter if it is a criminal or civil case, no one wants to deal with the stressors surrounding it. However, it is important to know the differences between the two. In order to fully understand the ways in which criminal and civil cases differ in Texas, it is important to understand each on its own.

What is Criminal Law?

A criminal act is a crime that is committed against the state. However, this does not mean that individuals cannot be victims. A criminal charge occurs when the defendant is accused of committing a crime as listed in the Texas Penal Code. This includes:

  • Murder
  • Assault
  • Theft
  • Possession of a controlled substance/illegal drug
  • Drunk driving

Private citizens cannot file criminal charges, but rather these charges must be brought by the government and filed by a prosecutor. Similarly, a private citizen cannot drop criminal charges; only be a prosecutor. The individual charged is called the defendant and is entitled to his or her own defense attorney, though a private defense attorney is recommended. 

What is Civil Law?

Civil law allows for an individual or entity to sue for financial damages that have occurred due to the illegal actions of a defendant. An individual can file a civil lawsuit with the help of an attorney. Civil offenses include:

  • Damaging property
  • Causing bodily harm
  • Causing death

The damages that are requested are for the purpose of covering the damages that the defendant has allegedly caused. 

However, civil lawsuits can also include:

  • Granting divorce
  • Granting child custody
  • Disputes over property
  • Breach of contract
  • Defamation 
  • Bankruptcy 

Consequences

In a civil lawsuit – many of which are settled out of court in the form of a payment from the defendant to the plaintiff, who then drops the suit – restitution is requested. Restitution is the specific amount requested by the plaintiff. As mentioned, a plaintiff has the right to drop charges in a civil suit. It is estimated that up to 90 percent of civil cases are settled out of court. 

Civil cases do not include penalties such as jail time. This is not the case with criminal cases. 

Criminal convictions can lead to different punishments such as prison time, fines, parole, or probation. In the state of Texas, which is known for its harsher criminal punishment, capital punishment (execution of the defendant) is still available.

Burdens of Proof

While a judge alone commonly hears a civil case (though it can also include a jury), criminal cases usually consist of a trial by jury.

Additionally, the burden of proof in a civil case is not as high as that of a criminal case. In a civil case, an attorney may only need to prove the allegation by a “preponderance of the evidence” or by “clear and convincing standards.” However, in a criminal case, a prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty of committing the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

Though negotiation and settlement is common in a civil case, criminal cases do not allow for it in the same way. Instead, a criminal trial may involve a plea bargain agreement, which essentially allows the criminal defense attorney to seek a lesser charge or punishment for their client by offering a guilty plea before the completion of a trial. 

Though negotiations are up to the parties in a civil suit, in a criminal suit a plea bargain must be approved by the court, but can also be rejected. 

While they have their differences, a person is capable of facing both civil and criminal charges for the same offense. In such a situation, the prosecution (which always has the burden of proof) may be able to prove the defendant was guilty by a preponderance of the evidence but not beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Ceja Law Firm PLLC Can Help

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Texas, how you handle it can have a major impact on the rest of your life and can greatly affect you and your family. That is why it is so important to find a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the intricacies of the law. At Ceja Law Firm PLLC we work with our clients to help make a bad situation better. To learn more or to schedule a free consultation, contact us today!