The United States legal system is somewhat poorly misunderstood. There are a few reasons for that. One of them is the fact that so many people get their legal education from shows like Law and Order and “CSI” and always assume things will play out in a specific and very dramatic way. There can certainly be drama, but it’s not going to look the way it looks on TV. Another area that confuses people is civil law versus criminal law. People think they’re all the same. There is occasional overlap, but the penalties in criminal court are quite different from the penalties in civil court, and they don’t operate the same way either.

Arrests and jail time

If a police officers slaps handcuffs on you and starts reading you your rights, then you’ve just become part of the criminal justice system. Offenders are taken to jail and usually given the chance to post bond and get out of jail while awaiting trial, although that’s not the case with especially serious crimes (like if someone is arrested on suspicion of mass murder).

An arrest will look the same just about anywhere you go. As a criminal defendant, the best move is generally to avoid talking too much and ask for an attorney. When you get one, make sure he or she practices in the city or county where your arrest took place, since he or she will need to appear in court with you. So if you’re arrested in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you’ll need to get an attorney in Ann Arbor. Your name and mugshot could appear in local media reports, depending on the kind of charges you’re facing. The press has a First Amendment right to report on public safety issues, so calling up your local TV station and complaining isn’t going to be productive unless they’ve made some sort of error. Reporting an arrest is not the same thing as saying the person arrested is definitely guilty.

Civil penalties

Plaintiffs often file civil suits because they feel like the criminal justice system has failed them, and so they decide monetary damages are better than nothing. The burden of proof is higher in criminal court than it is in civil court, so that usually makes winning a case easier. One of the most famous examples of this is O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of double murder in criminal court but found liable for “wrongful death” in a civil case and ordered to pay millions to the families of the deceased. Double jeopardy laws didn’t apply in this case, since Simpson was not being charged with the same crime twice. The only risk in civil court was to his bank account and whatever was left of his reputation.

Most civil suits don’t involve previous allegations of murder, though. A more common example would be something like a motorcycle accident where the motorcyclist was badly injured and police recommended reckless driving charges against the driver of the other car. If prosecutors decide not to go forward with charges (and they have a lot of leeway in that regard), then the motorcyclist could turn to a motorcycle injury lawyer in an attempt to recoup some of his or her medical costs. The attorney could also request compensation for lost wages and pain and suffering. Much like in criminal court, many civil cases are settled before they ever go to trial.

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