By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Today I’ll discuss a question I get from time to time in various forms:
- “Can I also get sued even though I’m being criminally prosecuted?”
… and the same question in reverse,
- “I’m getting sued right now (or being threatened with a lawsuit)… could they also criminally prosecute me?”
…another common one is,
- “Can someone threaten me with criminal charges to get me to settle a civil dispute?”
Could Someone Being Criminally Prosecuted also be Sued?
Yes, but it’s very rare and comparing a criminal prosecution to a civil lawsuit is like comparing a knife fight to a pillow fight. I might be more biased because I handle criminal cases but I tend to think they’re far more serious than civil cases — though civil cases can be thoroughly unpleasant too.
Most crimes where there is an accuser or victim involved can almost certainly trigger civil liability. Civil causes of action are far easier to bring and are generally easier to prove-up (because they’re just trying to take your money and not your liberty — or so the theory goes).
Probably the most common scenario I see is a car accident case where DWI might be alleged. Even that is mostly insurance companies duking out who will pay for what.
A criminal prosecution is often a ‘poor-man’s’ lawsuit. Going to the police and making the prosecutor’s telephone ring off the hook is free. Paying for your own lawyer to make someone else’s life miserable is a luxury. Hence the rarity of seeing both a civil and a criminal prosecution.
Ultimately my instinct is defend the criminal case first and worry about civil liability second. This is because of the severity of criminal prosecution and the punishments are simply not equivalent.
I’m Being Sued (or Threatened with a Lawsuit). Could this Turn Criminal?
Again, very rarely.
While most crimes involving victims or accusers trigger criminal liability as well — the reverse is not nearly as true. Civil causes of action are far more problematic to convert to criminal charges. This is for all sorts of reasons… civil cases are often based in negligence, or misunderstandings, or questions about who pays for an unexpected loss.
Most parties in a civil proceeding have little, if any, interest in pursuing criminal actions. Generally they just want whatever relief they think they might be entitled to. That could be things such as money or an injunction of some sort.
Also, police are very reluctant to get involved in what they perceive to be a civil dispute. They have enough to worry about and a complicated civil matter is often an easy “we can’t help you” situation.
Certain cases criminal value are extremely diminished when civil liability is sought first. Think of a sexual assault case where the accuser first tries to get a settlement or sues the perpetrator before going to the police. What might have been a solid case is now stained by questions about what could be the accuser’s real motive.
A normal exception would probably be certain white-collar cases where both victims have abundant resources and state or federal investigating agencies are interested due to the sheer amount or volume of a crime in question. Again, though, keep in mind these are not your garden variety or every-day case.
Can Someone Threaten Criminal Prosecution To Get a Civil Settlement?
No. That’s blackmail. Think about it… “Pay me money or a I’ll go to the police.” Generally lawyers or companies that make these types of threats word them extremely carefully. They make it clear you are settling civil liability only. Don’t get me wrong — they’re normally happy to let you think that by settling the civil case — you’re keeping a criminal matter “hush hush.”
While it’s okay to settle civil liability through a private settlement — no private party or entity can threaten criminal action nor waive the State or Government’s right to prosecute.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice on any situation you should contact an attorney directly.