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No Criminal Charges, but Sued Anyway?

December 14, 2022

Morgan T. Dilks

News broke on the afternoon of December 7, 2022 that no criminal charges would be brought against Matt “Punt God” Araiza by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. The former San Diego State University punter was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Based on his preseason performance, he appeared to be in the Bills’ plans for the 2022 season. A civil lawsuit accusing Araiza of rape was filed in August of 2022, prompting a criminal investigation by the San Diego Police Department. The Bills cut him immediately, and he presently does not play for an NFL team.

After an investigation, prosecutors have chosen not to charge Araiza criminally. A spokesperson for the San Diego District Attorney’s Office said that “prosecutors determined it is clear the evidence does not support the filing of criminal charges and there is no path to a potential criminal conviction. Prosecutors can only file charges when they ethically believe they can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

With no criminal charges being brought against Araiza, he is free to proceed with his NFL career (though, teams may still be hard pressed to pick him up for public relations reasons).

Whenever a civil suit is filed against an individual for acts which also carry criminal penalties, sometimes the connection between the two potential cases is misconstrued. It is often assumed that a prosecutor declining to press charges or failing to secure a conviction means that, inherently, the individual accused simply did not do what they were accused of doing, leaving the civil case dead in the water. That is often not true.

Civil cases and criminal cases carry two different and distinct burdens of proof.  A criminal case must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that the prosecution must convince the jury that the only reasonable explanation that can come from the evidence presented at trial is that the accused is guilty of the crime. This is, intentionally, a very high burden of proof. Conversely, a civil case must be proven “by a preponderance of the evidence.” This means that to prove your case, your allegations must be “more likely than not.” This is also sometimes described as “51% likely.”

Prosecutors have the discretion to bring or not bring cases as they deem appropriate under the circumstances. If prosecutors chose not to charge Araiza criminally, it could mean that there was zero evidence that he did what he was accused of. It could also mean that there was evidence; simply not enough or of sufficient strength for prosecutors to believe that they could secure a conviction based on that evidence. In this case, we don’t know all the facts, but we do know that the prosecutors did not have the necessary level of confidence in the evidence (or lack thereof) to charge Araiza criminally.

What does that mean for the civil case against Araiza?  Not much at this stage. The civil case will almost certainly proceed anyway. There are plenty of examples of cases in which criminal charges are not brought against the accused, or a conviction is not secured, and a civil case proceeds anyway. Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShaun Watson was named as a defendant in 25 cases (so far) alleging sexual misconduct, 24 of which have settled, despite the fact that the Houston District Attorney could not secure a criminal indictment against Watson for the same acts. More famously, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in October of 1995. Despite the acquittal, the families of the victims successfully sued O.J. for $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a subsequent civil trial based almost entirely on the same facts.

As for Araiza, it’s unclear what the future holds. The prosecutor’s choice to not charge Araiza criminally is not the proclamation of innocence that some believe it to be. Conversely, a finding of civil liability in the ensuing civil case would not definitively mean that he is guilty of what he was accused of doing. Different burdens of proof apply to criminal and civil cases and understanding the difference can help us form a more complete and educated opinion of the events occurring around us.  It can also help us make more informed decisions as to when it is appropriate to pursue litigation.

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