In the United States, our legal system is comprised of two different bodies of law that serve to bring justice to victims of wrongdoings and appropriate punishment to criminals that commit these acts. These two bodies are criminal law and civil law.
Crimes committed under these laws are different in definition, required burden of proof and sentencing – including some protections for the accused. There are common misconceptions about the differences between civil and criminal law that anyone facing charges should be aware of.
Civil Versus Criminal Law
The simplest way to define the difference between civil and criminal law is by identifying the alleged victim of the crime. Criminal law pertains to unlawful acts that are or can be construed to be an offense against a larger body, including the general public, society or state, even when there is only one individual victim. These types of crimes are seen as being a threat and an offense to society as whole. Examples of crimes punished under criminal law include murder, assault, driving while intoxicated and theft.
Civil law looks at behaviors directed towards an individual or party that result in injury or harm of some type. These acts are not seen as an offense to society at large and can include libel, slander, property damage, negligence or a breach of contract.
Beyond what defines a civil or criminal case, each is handled very differently by the court system in the way that the cases are initiated, how they are presented and decided, and the potential penalties imposed with conviction.
Key Differences Between a Civil and Criminal Case
- Initiation – In criminal cases, only the state or federal government may initiate the case for a jury trial. Civil cases, on the other hand, can be initiated by a private party and are almost always decided by a judge, although some more serious civil cases might result in a trial by jury.
- Representation – In criminal offenses, the defendant is entitled to legal representation, and if they are financially unable to acquire legal representation, the state is then required to supply an attorney. Representation is recommended for civil law cases as well, but the state or court is under no obligation to supply the defendant with representation. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, they may choose to represent themselves in the case.
- Burden of Proof – The standard of proof required for criminal cases is much higher than in a civil case. Criminal cases require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, where civil cases can be determined based on a preponderance of evidence.
- Punishment and Penalties – The punishment for a criminal case is generally more severe than for civil law violations. For example, without a plea deal, a criminal conviction can result in jail time, fines and probation. Penalties for civil cases generally involve orders of action and/or monetary damages.
- Protections – The United States Constitution offers protections for defendants in criminal cases that are not extended to those in civil cases, largely because they do not apply. The protections offered in the Constitution include Amendments IV, V and VI. These are prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, prohibition against compelled self-incrimination and the right to a speedy trial, respectively.
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