Technically, any attorney can help you file a law suit, regardless of their area of practice. However, a criminal defense attorney usually does NOT practice both civil and criminal law. Indeed, most criminal defense attorneys are specialized in the criminal side of the law instead of the civil side. To understand this, one must first understand that there’s a difference between civil and criminal law.
Civil vs. Criminal
The legal system in the U.S. is separated into two distinctive arenas: civil and criminal. When you sue someone for wronging you, whether it’s physical damage, emotional distress, contract disputes or unfair employment practices, it falls into the civil law arena. When you violate a criminal law and the government seeks to punish you for what you did, whether it’s theft, DUI/DWI, rape, or murder, it falls into the criminal law arena. One of the major difference between the arenas is that in criminal law, the government is always a party and the person who broke the law is always the defendant. In civil law, usually, the plaintiffs and the defendants are private parties. Another distinction between the arena is that in civil law, the goal is not trying to punish the defendant. Instead, the usual goal of civil law is to correct some wrongs the plaintiff experienced and return them to the state before the defendant wronged them. This is usually achieved through money damages paid to the plaintiff by the defendant. The best example of this is the area of tort law. In torts, the defendant acted or failed to act either intentionally or negligently which resulted in some damage to the plaintiff physically, emotionally or monetarily. The court in a tort case is trying to determine how it can best recover for the plaintiff for whatever the defendant did so that the plaintiff can be returned to the state before the defendant committed the tort.
Another distinction between civil and criminal law is in the procedures involved in each. In criminal procedures, the government and the prosecutor is limited by the Constitution. To put it in another way, the Constitution guarantees certain rights to the defendant of which the government cannot violate. These rights include limitation on searches and seizures, the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, the right to a fair and speedy trial, and the right to a jury trial. On the other hand, these rights do not apply to the civil procedures. This is because the framers of the Constitution believed that the government is a much more powerful adversary than individuals and its powers must be checked if the government is prosecuting someone so that no person can be deprived of life, liberty or property without the due process of the law. In a civil trial, both sides are usually individuals and as such, are much more equal in power and resources. As a result, the laws of civil procedure has more to do with guaranteeing a even playing field for both parties than the safeguarding of individual rights. As such, the laws civil procedures set out the duties and responsibilities of both parties, all of which are designed to make sure that both parties are equal footings from the initiation of a law suit to the end.
Difference in The Burden Of Proof
In a criminal trial, the government carries the burden to prove that the defendant is guilty of the accused crime beyond a reasonable doubt for each element of the crime. This means that if there’s even a sliver of doubt as to the guilt of the defendant, the jury must find that person not guilty. On the other hand, the burden of proof in a civil trial is usually the preponderance of evidence. This means the party asserting the point only has to prove that it was more likely than not the party did or did not do something. In addition, the burden usually shifts from one party to another, when one party established that it did or did not do something, the other party now carries the burden to set forth evidence that the other party is wrong. In other words, in a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant was guilty of the crime 100% in order to win; in a civil trial, the plaintiff only have to prove that it’s 51% correct in its assertions against the defendant in order win.
So what does all this mean?
So what do all these differences mean? Why can’t a criminal lawyer sue someone for me? Because of the above differences, the practice of civil law and criminal law is so divergent that a specialized criminal lawyer would be unfamiliar with the conceptual and procedural practices of the two arenas. It’s akin to hiring a cardiologist to fix a liver problem. Both are doctors but they are specialized in different area of medicine. Different enough that one doctor cannot adequately perform its duties like another doctor who specializes in that area. Just as you wouldn’t pay a plumber to fix your electrical problems, you wouldn’t want to hire a criminal defense attorney to sue someone for damages in a civil law suit because it’s not the right person for the job. The criminal defense attorney would not be able to adequately forward your interests in a civil law suit like a civil lawyer would be able to.