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What is a Defendant?

Updated on January 26, 2010

A defendant, in law, the person or group against whom a charge has been made in a criminal matter, or against whom a claim has been asserted in a civil matter. There are significant differences in the United States between being a civil defendant and being a criminal defendant. Although there are various kinds of civil cases, most often the person who starts an action (the plaintiff) is a private citizen seeking money to pay for the loss or injury he claims has been caused by the defendant's wrongful conduct. Inasmuch as the defendant's liberty is not involved, he cannot be arrested, need not be personally present in court, and, if he has no assets to protect, need not even defend the suit. Because the public interest is not involved, he may settle the matter out of court. He may also be required to supply information helpful to the plaintiff.

A criminal defendant, on the other hand, can be sent to prison if found guilty, and the party seeking to put him there is the state. Thus the defendant is subject to arrest and to giving bail (money or a bond) to ensure his appearance at trial. But he also is guaranteed, by the U.S. Constitution, the right to have an attorney, even if he cannot afford one, the right to trial by jury, and the right not to be compelled to give evidence against himself. His failure to assert a defense cannot be used as a silent admission of guilt. Moreover, he is presumed innocent until proved guilty, and must be proved so beyond a reasonable doubt.

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