Civil Law vs. Criminal Law in the U.S.

Civil Law vs. Criminal Law: Understanding the Differences

This is part of our Legal Basics series.

In the United States legal system, offenses and illegal acts are classified as either violations of criminal law or violations of civil law. These two distinct bodies of law address wrongdoing, deterrence, and compensation differently.

What is civil law?

Civil law governs disputes between individuals, businesses, organizations, or government entities over matters such as contracts, property, personal injury, family law, and negligence. The primary goal of civil law is to compensate the injured party or resolve disputes through remedies such as monetary compensation or injunctions.

Parties Involved: In civil cases, the parties involved are typically private individuals or entities, such as corporations or government agencies.

Standard of Proof: The standard of proof in civil cases is generally lower than in criminal cases. In civil cases, the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable.

Penalties: Civil penalties often involve monetary compensation (damages) awarded to the injured party. Other remedies may include injunctions, which require a party to stop or perform a specific action, or declaratory judgments, which clarify the legal rights of the parties involved.

Legal Proceedings: Civil cases are initiated by the filing of a complaint by the plaintiff, followed by a series of pretrial procedures, including discovery and settlement negotiations. If the case proceeds to trial, a judge or jury will decide the outcome based on the evidence presented.

What is criminal law?

Criminal law addresses offenses against society as a whole, such as murder, theft, assault, fraud, and drug trafficking. The primary purpose of criminal law is to punish individuals who violate laws and deter others from engaging in similar conduct. Criminal offenses are prosecuted by government authorities, such as district attorneys or federal prosecutors, on behalf of the state or federal government.

Parties Involved: In criminal cases, the government (prosecution) brings charges against the accused individual or entity (defendant) for violating criminal laws.

Standard of Proof: The standard of proof in criminal cases is higher than in civil cases. The prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a higher threshold that leaves no reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors or judge.

Penalties: Criminal penalties vary depending on the severity of the offense and may include fines, probation, imprisonment, or even death in cases of capital crimes. The primary focus is on punishment and rehabilitation of the offender.

Legal Proceedings: Criminal cases typically involve formal charges filed by the prosecution, followed by arraignment, pretrial motions, trial, and sentencing. The defendant has the right to legal representation and a fair trial by a jury of their peers.

Can an offense violate both criminal and civil laws?

Yes, there can be situations where an act might violate both civil and criminal law. For instance, if you are assaulted, you could potentially press criminal charges against the perpetrator and also sue them in a separate civil lawsuit for compensation for medical bills and pain and suffering.

Further Resources

See our Guide to Legal Basics

Share the Legal Info With Your Friends: