What Is Criminal Law vs Civil Law?

Criminal Law vs Civil Law

With legal cases, you must focus on specifics. For instance, would you classify your case as a criminal law matter vs a civil law matter? Criminal law pertains to criminal acts deemed harmful to society, even if only one person experiences immediate harm. Civil law deals with private disagreements between individuals or groups surrounding legal responsibilities and duties owed. Before diving deeper into the two different forms of law, know that they can occasionally intersect with each other.

What Are Civil Cases?

Whenever an individual or organization accuses another individual or organization of negligence regarding a legal duty, that creates the foundation for a civil case. The person who feels wronged is the plaintiff and the person accused of negligence is the defendant. The plaintiff takes the defendant to federal or state court with the intention of the defendant either compensating the plaintiff for damages or fulfilling a duty, sometimes both.

Corporations, the federal government and individuals have the right to bring civil cases to federal court for violations of constitutional rights or federal statutes. An example of this is a person suing a local police department for racial profiling or a violation of constitutional rights.

What Are Criminal Cases?

Anyone who stands formally accused of a crime receives either a misdemeanor or a felony. A state’s attorney’s office (usually referred to as a District Attorney) takes on state crimes. On the other hand, the United States Attorney’s Office handles federal crimes. With these cases, anyone deemed a victim in the crime does not bring the criminal case against the accused, like in a civil case. Instead, the government prosecutes the accused. One essential fact here is that there need not be a victim for a criminal case to exist, such as driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sometimes, serious offenses have the potential to lead to harm to others, which is reason enough for criminal charges.

If a court finds the accused guilty of committing a crime, the person receives a sentence. Examples of sentences include:

  • Imprisonment
  • Paying a fine, restitution or another monetary penalty
  • Supervision in the community
  • A combination of the three

Usually, criminal cases allow for a trial by jury.

What Are Essential Differences Between Criminal vs Civil Law Cases?

Diving deeper into the difference between civil and criminal cases, there are several essentials worth mentioning. For instance, civil and criminal offenses differ in terms of punishment. Besides offenses to society, a crime may also become an offense against the state. The standard of proof differs in criminal and civil cases, and civil cases do not require a trial by jury. Under criminal law, defendants have access to considerable protections, and they have a right to an attorney.

How Does Conduct at Issue Differ?

Often, the conduct at issue regarding criminal cases is more severe than that involved with civil cases. Additionally, criminal conduct at issue involves a measure of intent, whereas negligence is the issue in civil cases.

Say that one person robs another. In this scenario, there is a degree of intent. On the other hand, a storekeeper neglecting to mop up a spill that a customer later slips on and sustains an injury from does not measure up to a criminal act. That said, the customer suffered harm because of the storekeeper’s neglect. That means the injured individual has the right to recover damages.

How Does Punishment Differ?

A defendant found guilty in a criminal case must face probation or incarceration. In a civil case, the person found most responsible for the incident must either change her or his behavior or pay a financial penalty. While criminal cases go to trial, the same is not always true of civil cases. Parties may settle a civil case outside of court to save time and money. By dropping the suit, the plaintiff has the chance to receive a substantial sum. In exchange, the defendant admits to either doing no wrong or admits to a degree of negligence.

How Does the Burden of Proof Differ?

In both criminal and civil cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, which means providing adequate evidence to support or prove stated claims. Civil cases often have a less-severe burden of proof, with criminal cases requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is so severe in criminal cases that it is not unusual for there to be enough evidence to make it seem like the defendant most likely committed a crime, but the person still dodges punishment. This is because the defendant’s legal advocate focused on disproving evidence and planting seeds of doubt in the judge and jury’s minds.

How Does Mindset Differ?

Lawyers do not approach civil cases with the same mindset as they do criminal cases. For instance, when negotiating a deal in a criminal case, a legal professional must consider plea agreements, how a judge may respond to a plea agreement, how a jury may decide and how much time the accused may spend in prison.

With civil cases, lawyers have fewer restraints to consider when devising an acceptable solution. For that reason, a majority of civil cases (roughly 90%) do not even make it to trial.

How Can the Two Case Types Overlap?

Sometimes, acts contain elements of both criminal and civil law. For example, a person can stand accused of homicide and face a wrongful death suit after the criminal trial concludes. The criminal charges punish the accused via prison time and fines while civil charges help the victim or the victim’s dependents recover damages. In such instances, while there may be inadequate evidence for the criminal case, there could be enough for the civil case.

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