As a criminal defense attorney, sometimes I get requests from prospective clients who seem a bit confused about what kind of law I practice. For example, I’ll occasionally get calls from people who say something like: “I was sexually assaulted. Can you help me go after the person that assaulted me?”

When I explain that I can’t help them, they act confused and say, “Oh, really? But a crime was committed against me. This is a criminal case, and you handle criminal cases, right?”

I certainly sympathize with people in a situation like that, but it’s important to clarify exactly what we mean when we use terms like “criminal law.” There’s a big difference between being a victim of a crime versus being a person charged with a crime.

The first thing to keep in mind is: when people talk about “criminal law,” they’re usually talking about when the government accuses a person of committing a crime. In that case, charges get filed and that person must defend themselves against the government in a “criminal defense” case. That is the type of legal case I take. I represent folks who are charged as defendants in a criminal case where the government is saying, “Your client committed a crime and deserves punishment.”

Having said that, there is a lot in the world that happens to people that either is criminal or should be considered criminal. Whether they are allegations of sexual assault or someone stealing the stereo out of your car, each one is a criminal action, to be sure.

However, I don’t represent people who have their cars broken into. I don’t represent folks who are looking to “get justice” or money damages or anything like that. Even though these people are talking about crimes that were committed, if they want their stereo back, or they want to sue someone for damages, that is a matter of civil law, not criminal law. If they want the person who victimized them to pay criminally, then they need to file a report with the police.

The key question is: are you wanting to take legal action against a specific person? If so, that’s an individual-to-individual legal matter; a civil case. Whereas the legal cases I provide representation for are when the client is an individual and the other party is the government.

So, to be clear, I am a criminal defense attorney. That means I don’t help people press charges against others; I help people who have charges pressed against them. If someone feels that a crime has been committed against them, they are certainly welcome to reach out to a “victims’ rights attorney.” In Colorado, they can contact the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center, which is a non-profit law firm that provides free legal services to victims of crimes.

The reality is, if you really want charges pressed, you’ll need to call the police. In my opinion, very rarely is it a good idea to call the police. However, if you want charges filed, if you want to hold somebody accountable, then you’re going to have to call the police or/or sue the person who wronged you, neither of which I do. In that case, what you’re going to be looking for is a “civil lawsuit attorney,” and you can search online for someone like that.

It can also get confusing for folks because there are often high-profile cases that have both a criminal aspect and a civil aspect. The perfect example is OJ Simpson. In the 90s, OJ was tried criminally for murder and the jury found him not guilty. He was subsequently sued for wrongful death by one of the victim’s families in a civil trial. The jury found OJ Simpson liable for Ron Goldman’s death and awarded the family money damages.

How can this be? The families of the victims and the government wanted OJ Simpson to be convicted of murder. They didn’t get that, so then they sued him for wrongful death. The bar was much lower in the second case (the civil case) because instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” they just needed “a preponderance of the evidence,” and the jury awarded monetary damages for the wrongful death of Mr. Goldman.

So, make no mistake, in a case like this, I would be the lawyer representing OJ Simpson in the murder trial. But if you’re Ron Goldman’s family and you want to sue OJ in a civil case, I would not be the attorney for you. For that matter, I would not be the right lawyer to represent OJ in the civil case either, since that’s not criminal defense. I hope that helps.

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