NewsKnow the Law


Know the Law: Civil vs. Criminal

Posted at 10:48 AM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 10:48:16-04

Car crashes are a serious business and beyond the insurance and the civil lawsuits that you may hear about some of them can be criminal. In our Know the Law segment, Tom Sinas with Sinas Dramis Law Firm explained the difference between civil and criminal.

Sinas knows that it’s easy to get it all mixed up. Remember, we have separate justice systems in the United States; we have a criminal justice system, and a civil justice system, and to put it very simply, of course, in the criminal justice system, you're talking about consequences to the defendant that can include things like incarceration, taking away someone's liberty for conduct that violates our criminal statutes on the civil side of things. You are primarily talking about claims for money damages, so you're not talking about the loss of liberty and civil case. Sinas thinks the confusion arises alluding to this idea that one act one act by person or a series of acts by a person can result in them, ending up in both justice systems at the same time. This is not just limited to car crashes. It's the general idea that a person can violate a number of rules and end up not only being sued by someone else, but also being prosecuted in the criminal justice system by state government or the federal government, and these things can happen kind of at the same time, and there can be different outcomes in the different cases or this or similar outcomes in the different cases, they're of course governed by different rules, different standards of proof, but where Sinas thinks the confusion comes in for people keeping track of where in this justice system.

What's the distinction between a car crash that just could end up with a civil lawsuit versus criminal? That distinction really comes down to the seriousness of the harm. In Michigan statutes say if you commit a moving violation, a violation of our motor vehicle code and that violation results in a serious injury, with the law cause a serious impairment of a body function, then that can subject you to prosecution as a misdemeanor, that's a misdemeanor offense. If you committed a violation, and that violation results in death, that also is a misdemeanor. Now in those two instances, the driver who commits the violation is also going to very likely be subject to civil liability, they're going to likely be sued in the civil side, but right there you see where there is serious harm and a driver who breaks the rules that driver can be criminally prosecuted in this case example Sinas is talking about as a misdemeanor also subjected to civil liability. Now, if the harm is serious, and the conduct is even more serious and here that could me intoxication, then the stakes are even higher in the criminal side. So if you are driving while intoxicated and you seriously injure someone that's a felony and that can subject you to a very lengthy incarceration period. If you are driving while intoxicated and someone else is killed, that's also a felony and these are felonies that that can lead to a very lengthy incarceration and then of course, also civil liability at the same time. So where Sinas sees these happening are circumstances where you have drivers who broke a rule of the road, and someone who was either seriously hurt or killed. That is where there is this intersection and overlap of these separate systems of our justice system coming together.

Victims of crimes have certain rights under Michigan law. If you are a victim of a crime, hopefully you'll be put in touch with a victim witness advocate and you'll get some information about this but here's some general common ones. Victims of a crime, have a right to be notified of what is going on in the criminal case, because what's unusual, speaking as a former prosecutor, is that any criminal case the two parties are the state and the defendant. So, the law has given victim certain rights, so that they don't feel like they are terribly on the outside of what's happening so they have a right to be notified of what's going on. They have a right to be informed of for example, a proposed plea agreement, they have a right to make an impact statement of victim impact statement, they have a right to claim restitution with restitution well, it's generally those type of financial losses that are not otherwise covered by insurance, they have a right to claim that in the criminal case. It’s important that victims, monitor what is going on in the criminal case, because not only do they have rights, but what goes on in the criminal case could also affect circumstances in the civil case.

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