Types of Court Cases
In the United States court cases are divided up into a wide variety of classifications within two major types of trials, criminal and civil.
In criminal cases, the judicial branch of our government decides the innocence or guilt of a person or entity and punishes if found guilty. However, in civil cases, the court system settles disputes between individuals or companies and determines sanctions or penalties as the outcome.
Within each type of court case, there are various classifications to identify specific types of issues such as tax violations, real estate issues, family and probate court, malpractice and injury situations and then criminal violations such as assault, murder, and drug-related crimes.
Each state varies widely in their specific laws, penalties and how their courts operate with a general adherence to the specific set of guidelines set forth by the U.S. Constitution. As long as each state operates within those guidelines, they have a lot of freedom to govern the state however the citizens see fit.
The United States Constitution, through the 7th Amendment, guarantees each American the right to sue someone for damages or loss they have incurred because of actions taken by another. This type of court case is called a civil lawsuit. If you are the person bringing the case to court, then you are called the plaintiff. If you are the person who is being sued, then you are called the defendant.
In civil cases, you are not entitled to free legal representation, and if you are sued or doing the suing, you must hire a private attorney to handle your case. There may be some legal aid resources in your area, but it depends on a lot of factors. If you receive legal assistance for free, then the lawyer has performed the work “pro bono,” without pay. If you or the other party represents themselves in the lawsuit, this is referred to as “pro se.”
Based on the type of court case, your suit may belong in a federal courthouse or district/state courthouse. The original design of the Constitution was to limit the power of the federal courts so. Therefore, most cases are tried in state courts and fall to those jurisdictions.
Even though most cases end up in district court, there are a few exceptions that must be processed by a federal court. Cases needing to be tried within a federal court must must satisfy at least one of the following two situations.
1) The case must involve federal law and the application of it to a specific situation.
2) The lawsuit is between parties that reside in different states; this is called “diversity of citizenship.” In these cases, the dollar value of the lawsuit also must exceed $75,000.
A few examples of cases that are deemed appropriate for federal processing are:
- A lawsuit about discrimination or civil rights violation.
- A lawsuit where someone’s freedom of speech, religion or express was oppressed.
- A lawsuit by a person suing a company that is located in another state.
Criminal cases are very different than civil cases and occur when the government charges one or more individuals with the crime of breaking the law. The person(s) being charged with the crime is called the defendant. Because the government is the entity pursuing the case, a United States Attorney or an Assistant United States Attorney acts as the lawyer for the state or federal government. The person representing the government is called the prosecuting attorney.
There are different levels of crime each named by its own category such as infraction, a misdemeanor, and felony and each carries a different weight regarding severity and punishment.
Infractions are the least serious of crimes, and generally, police officers will punish the individual with a ticket to pay fees or a summons to court where a judge will decide the punishment. These are typically pretty low-key instances such a parking or speeding tickets. Infractions do not involve a criminal arrest or the person going to jail.
Misdemeanors, however, are more serious and involve things like possession of drugs or driving while intoxicated. These types of crimes involve a court case and usually some jail time up to a year. Sometimes community service will be substituted instead of jail time as the punishment.
Felonies are the most serious types of crimes such as murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping, and destruction of property where someone was injured. This type of crime usually results in serious prison time. A judge will determine the exact level of punishment, so it matches the severity of the crime.
The majority of crimes violate state law and not federal. The district court system is quite busy processing the sheer volume of petty crimes and more serious ones committed within their jurisdiction.
Only a select few crimes that actually break a United States law are eligible to be processed in a federal court. Some examples of those types of crimes would be:
- Threatening the president or other federal officials or federal property.
- Financial fraud
- Bank robbery.
- Committing a crime on federal property.
- Committing a crime using federal highways.
- Committing a crime using a gun or other firearm.
- Manufacturing or dealing of controlled substances like drugs.
- Committing a crime that involves conspiracy like terrorism.
Everyone who is accused of a federal crime has the right to legal representation even if they cannot afford to pay for their own lawyer. The court will assign one to them to help with their case. This right is guaranteed by our 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution. A court-appointed attorney working pro bono for a criminal client is called a Public Defender. Defendants of felony crimes may also choose to represent themselves, and this is called pro se.
Felonies generally carrying a jail term of more than one year and sometimes, in some states are even subject to the death penalty.