Knowledge of your legal options is power in Sarasota.
That is the fundamental point of my articles. If you are the victim of a crime, in most circumstances, the criminal court is not your only option. Let’s continue our goal to empower you with knowledge.
There are four usual types of courts under State law: Criminal courts, Civil courts, Dependency courts, and Appellate courts. There are other courts, tribunals, administrative proceedings, and of course the Federal court system as well.
Criminal courts handle criminal matters. Civil courts handle small claims cases, general litigation such as personal injury, contracts, foreclosure, landlord/tenant, probate, family law, and domestic violence cases. Dependency courts are part criminal and part civil in nature (if you do not know what a dependency court is, count your blessings). Appellate courts review decisions by the trial courts.
Criminal vs. Civil Court
Victims of most crimes can take the law into their own hands and use the civil courts to seek damages for criminal acts. Why is this important? Remember that when a criminal case is filed it is always the State of Florida against the Defendant. In other words, the State of Florida, by and through the State Attorney’s Office, has the ability to determine whether to prosecute the crime or not. Don’t get me wrong, the victim has the right to be present and participate in the proceedings. In practice, most of the time the victim’s veracity in wanting to prosecute or not may determine whether the case will proceed. However, ultimate authority is vested with the State Attorney’s Office.
Another critical aspect of the criminal system is that the State Attorney’s Office must prove its case at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. Almost every State Attorney I have met is a quality attorney that works hard and long hours. However, the standard the State Attorney must prove is the toughest standard to meet in the court system. There may be times when the victim of a crime does not want to prosecute a case in the criminal courts. Alternatively, the State Attorney may decide (or the Judge or a jury may decide for them) that they cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Civil Court Justice
The good news is that you can still seek justice for criminal acts in the civil courts including small claims court. Chapter 772, Florida Statutes, governs the types of crimes and the relief you can receive, and under what terms. The Statute is not well drafted (sorry Tallahassee) and it references all sorts of other statutes in a very confusing manner. It would take 20 or more pages on my word processor for me to piece together the entire scope of crimes and cross-references to give a complete list, and then you would be very bored and stop reading.
Seeking civil remedies for criminal actions has a few attractive aspects to it. First, in almost all cases, you will be entitled to at least $200 in damages. Not enticing enough? You can also generally receive three times the amount of your actual damages. That means that if you lost $500, you could be entitled to three times this amount. You can also often recover your attorney’s fees if you prevail. Still not enticing enough? Consider that you can pick your own attorney or bring the case on your own.
Finally, the burden of proof is much lower. Rather than having to prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt, in most situations you only have to prove that the defendant more likely than not committed the crime (preponderance of the evidence).
Your ability to bring a civil lawsuit for criminal actions is not appropriate in all circumstances. Remember, however, that the phrase “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” worked in O.J. Simpon’s criminal case, but he was found liable in a civil court where the glove apparently “more than likely” fit. Now you know that you have options, and options and knowledge are empowering.