It was reported a few minutes ago that Trump Is Found Liable for Sexual Abuse in Civil Case, but "Its findings are civil, not criminal, meaning Mr. Trump has not been convicted of any crime and faces no prison time."

Why is this trial different to other trials where a person that's found guilty of sexual abuse is sentenced to prison?

Is this different because he's an ex-president?

  • 1
    Why do people downvote without explaining? May 9, 2023 at 20:35
  • Is this something that I was supposed to know? May 9, 2023 at 20:35
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    I guess it is the allegation that it is because he is a political figure, that you do not point to who is the reporter you quote and because the difference between civil and criminal law is on the most basic sides: Criminal is state vs. person, civil is person vs person.
    – Trish
    May 9, 2023 at 21:20
  • 4
    Silent downvotes are fine law.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1586/…
    – Dale M
    May 9, 2023 at 21:50
  • That question should be a duplicate (of something along the lines of "what is the difference between civil and criminal law"), but I did not find anything. Yes, that is a basic question, but that does not make it downvote-worthy (in fact, I upvoted it, because it’s a good question to have on the site).
    – KFK
    May 16, 2023 at 15:18

3 Answers 3


There are many different kinds of laws, and many different ways of violating them. The main two are (1) criminal law, which generally addresses violations that injure the government's interests; and (2) civil law, which largely addresses violations that injure private parties' interests.

Some conduct can violate both sets of laws:

  • If you steal something from a store, the government can put you in jail for theft, and the store can sue you for the value of the item you stole.
  • If you punch someone in the face, the government can can put you in jail for assault, and the person you punched can sue you to pay for their hospital bills.
  • If you grope a woman in a dressing room, the government can put you in jail for sexual assault, and the woman can sue you for battery.

Donald Trump falls into that last category. Jean Carroll has sued him for battery, but the government cannot prosecute Trump for the crime because enough time has passed that the criminal statute of limitations has expired. Moreover, a civil trial cannot subject someone to jail time because such a deprivation of liberty requires greater procedural safeguards -- jury unanimity, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, etc. -- that do not always apply to civil trials like this.

Trump's status as ex-president has no bearing on the penalties the court may legally impose on him.

  • Isn't the statue of limitations the same for criminal as well as civil cases? Why can he still be sued when the crime has elapsed?
    – PMF
    May 10, 2023 at 17:05
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    Criminal and civil statutes of limitations are rarely linked to each other. In this case, though, both criminal and civil SOLs had technically lapsed, but the New York Legislature approved a bill reopening the window for certain expired civil claims for a one-year period, allowing Carroll to file her suit.
    – bdb484
    May 10, 2023 at 18:54
  • Another issue is that it's possible that the level of conduct which would justify a lawsuit may be insufficient to justify prosecution. For example, if someone who is accused of stealing something from the store claims he thought the item had been paid for, a criminal jury that found such a claimed belief both genuine and reasonable would be required to acquit even if the belief was wrong, but if a civil jury found that the item hadn't been paid for, it should order the alleged thief to pay for it.
    – supercat
    Jun 2, 2023 at 20:51

Civil cases can not lead to prison time

Prison time is only available in criminal cases.

Civil cases lead to civil remedies, which are usually money or an order not to do something, very rarely an order to do something specific, but never prison time. A monetary award can be meant to make the claiming party whole (damages), to punish the sued party (punitive award), or both.

The case in question was civil in nature and resulted in a hefty monetary award for the plaintiff. The award contained both damages and punitive amounts.

Why not a criminal trial?

The problem is the statute of limitations of the actual criminal act had run out years ago, so no criminal case could be filed.

However, the statute of limitation for the civil act of defamation only started when Mr. Trump spoke about the plaintiff in a defaming manner sometime in 2019. The first case was brought timely in November 2019, while Trump was president. Since the civil lawsuit for defamation was brought timely, the case went forward. It is of note that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the statute of limitations for many things was halted and thus extended, and as a result, the case could have been brought even later. In this case Mr. Trump claimed was covered under presidential immunity.

However, Mr. Trump did stop being president in 2020 and repeated the defaming statements in a statement of 2022, creating a new instance of defamation, which then was brought in a new case. As a private citizen... the case this time stuck with no defense.

There also was a Battery claim in there, which used a very narrow window opened by the Adult Survivor Act in which New York did re-wind the statute of Limitations - or rather a lookback window. This means that within one year from November 24th 2022, victims of sexual abuse after they had turned 18 can file a case to seek civil remedies regardless of the year in which the abuse took place.


There is criminal law, and there is civil law. If you are convicted of breaking criminal law, you can go to jail for that. The rule is that your guilt must be proven "beyond reasonable doubt"

In a civil court, you can be accused of causing damage, If you are convicted you may be convicted of paying those damages, plus possible extra damages. The rule is that to be convicted in a civil court, your guilt must be established on the basis of probabilities, say 51% chance that you are guilty.

It is absolutely common that there is enough proof to order payment in a civil court (51% chance of guilt) but not enough for a criminal conviction (guilt beyond reasonable doubt).

Consider a case where our cars crashed, but it's not obvious whether my car damaged yours, or yours damaged mine. It is quite clear that ONE of us should pay for the damage. The one paying is the one who is more likely guilty, even though none of us is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

PS. It seems the case was brought years after the event. At that time I’m told statute of limitations had run out for any criminal charges, but not for a civil case. So in this case Mr Trump couldn’t be criminally convicted even if evidence would have normally shown him guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

A woman in the UK had the opposite happen to her: She was raped, the rapist convicted, and she didn’t sue for damages because there was no money. Six years later the convicted criminal won millions in the lottery, but the time had run out for her to sue for damages.

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    "51% chance of guilt" is poorly phrased. The correct term is "preponderance of evidence", although a Baysian might consider it equivalent. And Trump was found liable, not guilty. "Guilt" is a term from criminal law. May 10, 2023 at 9:14
  • It's not absolutely clear that one person should pay to repair damage to both cars - insurers (and courts) frequently find that both parties contributed to accidents and should pay up in agreed proportion. Jun 2, 2023 at 12:09
  • @TobySpeight But it is clear that someone has to pay. Unlike a criminal case, where quite often nobody “pays” (goes to jail)
    – gnasher729
    Jun 3, 2023 at 22:20

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