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When civil allegations of sexual assault turn into criminal charges

Civil allegations can lead to criminal charges.

The United States legal system allows for accusation of wrongdoing in two separate ways: civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions. Civil proceedings generally involve people or private entities accusing other people of civil wrongs, while criminal proceedings involve the government charging people with violations of public codes or laws. These are two distinct systems offering two distinct forms of relief or punishment. In civil cases, the relief is generally in the form of a monetary award if the alleged victim can establish the liability of the accused party. In criminal cases, punishment can include prison time, probation and fines.

In some cases, allegations of civil wrongdoing in a civil courtroom can cause the government to take notice – and to begin a criminal investigation. Although the civil and criminal justice systems are distinct, one accusation of wrongdoing can result in the accused facing both criminal and civil trials. Most recently, the infamous Harvey Weinstein case provides an excellent example.

Harvey Weinstein: An example of civil accusations leading to criminal charges

Harvey Weinstein is now the subject of a civil lawsuit. A former employee sued him, stating that Mr. Weinstein sexually and physically assaulted her for years. She claims that he threatened to fire her and ruin her career if she ever reported his actions to anyone. Her allegations are different than those of other Hollywood stars who have come out against the famous producer because they include an accusation of physical force. The government could use the woman’s claim of physical force to support charges of a more serious sex crime. As such, the initial civil matter could cause criminal charges or indictments to arise. Mr. Weinstein is now seeing the dangerous results of facing a civil lawsuit in these circumstances.

Mr. Weinstein has stated that the relationship was consensual and denies the allegations of sexual assault.

A legal primer: Civil and criminal cases defined

The proceedings in criminal and civil courts are very different, but they do share some similarities. Both often begin with what is referred to as the discovery process. Discovery is the legal term for the time used to gather evidence to build the case or a defense, after a lawsuit and/or criminal charges have been brought. Generally, the rules for discovery in criminal cases are much stricter compared to those used in civil cases. For example, depositions are common in civil cases. Attorneys can force potential witnesses – and the opposing side – to answer questions under oath, for hours, on a broad range of topics. In criminal cases, there is no such right, with only rare exceptions. A criminal defense attorney, therefore, must work to prevent the discovery process in a companion civil case from circumventing the stricter criminal discovery rules.

It is possible for the accused to face both civil and criminal proceedings at the same time. In many cases, a criminal defense attorney can work with a civil defense attorney to “stay” (or temporarily pause) the civil proceedings until the criminal case is concluded. This is allowed in cases where the “interests of justice seem to require such action,” as ruled by the Supreme Court of the United States in United States v. Kordel. To make this determination, the court generally takes five factors into consideration. These factors include the private interests of the alleged victim and the accused, the convenience of the courts, the interests of third parties or non-parties in the civil matter and the public’s interest.

Needless to say, these matters are complex. This discussion, however, illustrates the damage that can result from mere allegations of sexual misconduct. Anyone facing sexual assault allegations should take the accusation seriously. An attorney experienced in these matters can work to build a defense to protect your reputation and reduce the risk of civil and criminal penalties.


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