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Robbins: The concept of innocence

Recently, a local sheet had a headline that read like this: “Questioning Avon’s lawsuit against 5 innocent people?” The opinion piece was about a lawsuit between the town and a group of citizens in Avon.

This column is neither about the lawsuit itself nor about the general topic posed; to wit, can — or is it proper for — the town to sue, at least under the particular circumstances of the case. Instead, what caught my eye, was the headline itself, what it inferred about the law, and how that inference was developed in the column.

What is suggested — perhaps screamed — was that the citizens were “innocent” and should, therefore, not be sued. Which led me to sit down this morning and delve into the topic.



First of all, guilt or innocence has not the slightest blush, association, or alliance with civil suits. Second, “innocence” is not a concept in the law. And third, in the right venue, it is the proceeding itself that leads to the result. When wrongdoing is suspected, it is the process of the law that leads to the outcome of guilt or not.

Expanding on the first point, there are two broad areas of law: civil law and criminal law. Civil law deals with disputes between individuals although what an “individual” may be is writ large. At law, an individual may be a living, breathing person, a corporation or other entity, a city, town, state or other governmental body, or nearly anything else that is separate and divisible from everything else. A corporation, trust, estate, or homeowner’s collective may be the party to a civil suit.



Criminal law is different. Rather than private disputes between legal “persons,” what criminal suits address is wrongs against the collective body of the “state.” That’s why, you might note, if you peek behind the curtain of the law, criminal cases are styled as “The People of the State of Name the State” versus “Name of the Person Who is Alleged to Have Committed the Offense.” In criminal cases, the victim(s) of a particular alleged crime notwithstanding, it is the state that has been offended. This is different than in a civil case where the case may be styled something more like Jones versus Smith, naming the individual disputants.

Civil suits are generally resolved, if successful, by an award by the court of “damages.” Most times, “damages” amounts to money awarded from one of the disputants to the other. Sometimes damages are in the guise of other “relief” such as where the court may “declare” certain rights between the parties or order one party or the other to take — or abstain from taking — some act or another (known as “injunctive relief).

It is worth noting too, that in civil law, in many but not all circumstances, if the suit proceeds to trial, the trial may be “before the court” (that is, tried by a judge) or presented to a jury. This will lead, some day soon to another column about the court’s “equitable” and/or “legal” jurisdiction. Suffice it to say, for our purposes here, that some claims, depending on the nature of the claim, can be maintained before a jury and others cannot.

Criminal law is of a different stripe.

Criminal law deals with offenses against the state. Unlike civil law, the sine qua non of a criminal proceeding is punishment rather than, as in civil law, to compensate a party for a “loss.” If one is convicted of a crime, the piper of the state will be paid whether by incarceration, the payment of a fine, or both.

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution assures one criminally accused to the right to a jury trial. Specifically, the Sixth provides that, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” In most places in these United States, minor offenses are tried to a jury of six and felonies are tried to a full panel of twelve jurors.

It is worth noting too, that procedures differ in the prosecution of civil cases as compared to criminal cases. As but one example of the distinction, there are encoded rules of civil procedure and wholly separate and distinct rules of criminal procedure. Similarly, a criminal accused is assured different rights than those embroiled in a private civil dispute.

At the end of the day, in civil proceedings, what is determined is who is right and who is wrong on which side of the dispute and, separately, what “damages” will make things right. In a criminal matter, what the outcome determines is that the accused is “guilty” or “not guilty.” One is never found “innocent.” That is a concept unknown to the criminal law.

So, after bloviating thusly, above, what, respectfully offended me about the headline was that the writer had it mixed up on three scores. First, a civil dispute — which is what the town of Avon imbroglio is all about — has not a wit to do with crime and punishment, guilt or innocence. Second, even if the matter did deal with a crime — which it emphatically does not — all the accused could hope for is a finding that he, she, or they were found to be “not guilty” rather than to be found “innocent.”

And lastly, the whole purpose of legal proceedings is to determine where the equities lie; if there is merit to a claim, one may not presume before the fat lady of the law sings, how it will all turn out. If there is a scintilla of traction to the claim(s), then the drama of judicial proceedings will need to play out to see where the chips will ultimately fall.


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