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Does a civil suit over drunk driving constitute double jeopardy?

On Behalf of | Jan 2, 2020 | Auto Accidents

Knowing your rights makes it easier to stand up for them. Unfortunately, knowing just a little bit about a topic can sometimes be more dangerous than being totally ignorant. For example, consider double jeopardy, which is a Constitutional protection against undergoing criminal trial more than once for the same alleged crime.

Some people might believe that the rights of a person accused of a crime could prevent the victims of that crime from seeking civil justice with a lawsuit, particularly if that person already faced charges related to the crime.

You probably know that drunk driving is a crime, so if you get hurt in a crash caused by an impaired driver, you expect that the state of Colorado will charge that driver with a criminal offense. Regardless of whether they got convicted or not, you may believe that the accused’s protection from double jeopardy prevents you from seeking compensation for medical costs, property damage and lost wages you suffered.

Double jeopardy only applies to criminal consequences, not civil ones

The protections commonly known as double jeopardy serve to keep law enforcement officers, prosecutors or courts from repeatedly charging someone they have previously failed to convict for a specific offense. The intention is to limit civic power against those charged with crimes, not the power of those harmed by others to take civil action.

The protection from repeated criminal charges does not protect an individual from civil consequences for their behavior. Criminal or wrongful acts are often the basis for personal injury lawsuits. It is possible for someone to bring a civil lawsuit against an individual who caused a drunk-driving crash even after the state charges them with an offense.

A conviction could make it easier to prove your case

If the Colorado courts successfully convicted the driver who caused the crash of an impaired driving offense, that conviction can serve as evidence in your civil case against that driver. However, even if the courts can’t successfully prosecute the driver who caused the crash, you may still have the ability to successfully take them to court over your financial losses.

The criminal courts have a much higher standard for evidence and convictions. The jury or judge hearing a case must agree that the evidence brought by prosecutors eliminates all reasonable doubt about the innocence of the individual charged with a crime. A good defense attorney could challenge the chain of custody for chemical evidence or create just enough doubt to keep a jury from convicting a drunk driver.

That same evidence may be more than adequate to prove a preponderance of evidence, which just means that the evidence makes it more likely that your claim is correct than the claim of the other party. The lower requirements for evidence in civil trials make them an excellent way to seek justice, especially if criminal charges were not successful.