In the eyes of the law, any person facing criminal or civil charges is known as a defendant. To ensure each defendant is treated fairly, the United States Constitution provides numerous protections to these individuals. However, depending on the type of case the defendant is facing, these provisions vary greatly.

Civil cases involve non-criminal conflicts, such as property and contract disputes. A landlord who sues a former tenant, for instance, would be an example of a civil dispute. The person accused of the wrongdoing is the defendant (in the example given earlier, this would be the tenant), while the person accusing the defendant is known as the plaintiff (the landlord).

In most civil cases, the plaintiff will seek some sort of financial compensation for the alleged offense. After both the plaintiff and defendant present their version of events, a judge or jury will decide whose story is more plausible. Depending on the outcome, the defendant will either be ordered to pay the plaintiff a specified amount of money, or the case will be dismissed.

It is important to know that the burden of proof lies on the defendant in civil disputes. In other words, once the plaintiff successfully shows cause for his or her claim, the defendant must prove his or her case to the court. This is very different from criminal cases, where the burden of proof is left entirely to the prosecutor.

In criminal cases, the defendant is the person who has been accused of committing a particular crime or offense. Since the United States Constitution specifies that anyone who is accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty, the defendant in a criminal case is not responsible for proving that he or she is innocent. Rather, the prosecution must prove that the defendant is, in fact, guilty.

Because crimes are mandated by state and/or federal law, the second party in a criminal case is not another individual, but a representative of the state—this person is known as the prosecutor. Due to the penalties associated with criminal offenses—such as fines and jail time—the defendants in these types of cases are guaranteed a number of provisions, including the right to remain silent after they are arrested and the right to obtain legal counsel. Other protections include the right to a fair and speedy trial and the right to be informed of the charges they are facing.