Differences between Civil and Criminal Law in the USA

Copyright 1998 by Ronald B. Standler Table of Contents
introduction punishment burden of proof protections for criminal defendants ignorance of the law is no excuse

Criminal law is much better known to laymen than civil law, as a result of journalists' reports of famous criminal trials. In talking with people about law, I find that they often misapply principles from criminal law to situations in civil (e.g., tort) law, which results in their misunderstanding. They are surprised when they learn the actual legal principles that apply to a problem. The purpose of this essay is to compare and contrast criminal and civil law. In civil law, a private party (e.g., a corporation or individual person) files the lawsuit and becomes the plaintiff. In criminal law, the litigation is always filed by the government, who is called the prosecution.

One of the most fundamental distinctions between civil and criminal law is in the notion of punishment.

criminal law
In criminal law, a guilty defendant is punished by either (1) incarceration in a jail or prison, (2) fine paid to the government, or, in exceptional cases, (3) execution of the defendant: the death penalty. Crimes are divided into two broad classes: felonies have a maximum possible sentence of more than one year incarceration, misdemeanors have a maximum possible sentence of less than one year incarceration.

In practice.g. not rational) or believe that they will not be caught by the police. if the defendant's conduct is egregious and had either (1) a malicious intent (i.civil law In contrast. there is a possibility of punitive damages. (2) gross negligence (i.e. So-called punitive damages are never awarded in a civil case under contract law. conscious indifference). In general. as one is reminded every day by reading reports of journalists..e. criminals are either impulsive (i. incarceration) as much more serious than merely paying damages to an injured plaintiff. a losing defendant in civil litigation only reimburses the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant's behavior. where the actual monetary injury to plaintiff(s) may be small. the plaintiff may receive nothing if the defendant has no assets and no insurance. In contrast. as explained later in this essay.. Legal theory considers the possibility of loss of freedom (i. it is not possible for a defendant to purchase insurance to pay for his/her criminal acts. As a result of this high value placed on personal freedom. one year in prison. invasion of privacy) and civil rights. burden of proof criminal law . The use of punitive damages makes a public example of the defendant and supposedly deters future wrongful conduct by others. a defendant in civil litigation is never incarcerated and never executed. than pay a million dollars from their personal assets. legal dogma is that criminal litigation is more serious than civil litigation. therefore criminal defendants have more rights and protections than civil defendants.. automobile insurance.e. One can purchase insurance that will pay damages and attorney's fees for tort claims. effect of punishment The notion that the threat of punishment will deter criminal conduct is based on the principle that human beings are rational. Such insurance coverage is a standard part of homeowner's insurance policies. In a civil case under tort law. and insurance for businesses. Punitive damages are particularly important in torts involving dignitary harms (e.e. or (3) a willful disregard for the rights of others. Therefore. desire to cause harm). for example. While a court can order a defendant to pay damages. large awards for plaintiffs in tort cases are often an illusion. In this way. The economic reality is that most people would prefer to spend. or if the defendant is skillful in concealing assets.. the threat of punishment does not deter criminal conduct..

If the defendant wishes to claim that he/she is insane. For example. I. the burden of proof is always on the state. there are a number of technical situations in which the burden shifts to the defendant. which is a standard higher than preponderance. prohibition against "unreasonable searches and seizures". fraud) require that plaintiff prove his/her case at a level of "clear and convincing evidence". However.. "beyond a reasonable doubt. (There are exceptions. For example. The state must prove that the defendant is guilty. §9 and 10 If an act was lawful when it was performed. and therefore not guilty. Amendment IV. the plaintiff wins. if the jury believes that there is more than a 50% probability that the defendant was negligent in causing the plaintiff's injury.In criminal litigation. The defendant is assumed to be innocent. when the plaintiff has made a prima facie case. the defendant needs to prove nothing. especially considering that the defendant could be ordered to pay millions of dollars to the plaintiff(s). This protection takes two forms: 1. Amendment V. and the defendant's participation.S. A defendant who is found "not guilty" of a more serious charge can not have a second trial on a lesser included offense. A few tort claims (e. Other exceptions include defendants who claim self-defense or duress. In civil litigation. if D is found . the burden shifts to the defendant to refute or rebut the plaintiff's evidence. the burden of proof is initially on the plaintiff.) In criminal litigation. prohibition of double jeopardy. This is a very low standard." It is difficult to put a valid numerical value on the probability that a guilty person really committed the crime. Constitution: No ex post facto law. the performer can not be convicted of a crime as a result of a law enacted after the performance. civil law In civil litigation. For example. but legal authorities who do assign a numerical value generally say "at least 98% or 99%" certainty of guilt. it is too low a standard.g." protections for criminal defendants Anyone who has studied civics in the USA knows of a number of protections specified in the U. the plaintiff wins if the preponderance of the evidence favors the plaintiff. Art. but less than "beyond a reasonable doubt. In my personal view. the state must prove that the defendant satisfied each element of the statutory definition of the crime. compared to criminal law. the defendant bears the burden of proving his/her insanity.

108 (1964). 25 (1972). 335 (1963). Amendment V the right to a speedy trial. as interpreted in. prohibition against compelled self-incrimination. The most common example of such two trials is a criminal prosecution for homicide and then have a second trial for the same defendant for the tort of wrongful death: the most famous example of this situation is the cases of O. 440 U. Texas. incidental killing of someone during the commission of a felony.. then D can not be tried for the underlying felony (e. 436 (1966). U.. before searching or seizing items from a person's house. Spinelli v. Alabama.S. 45 (1932). Amendment VI the right to the assistance of counsel.g.S. In criminal law. 10 (1946). The prosecution can not appeal a "not guilty" verdict.S.. the plain fact is that one can be tried twice for the same event. Powell v. Amendment VI. Simpson.S. Miranda v. Hamlin. However.S. Aguilar v.g."not guilty" on a charge of felony murder (e. 393 U.. Scott v. 287 U. an attorney may request documents or a visit inside a building. civil rights violation). Of course. police generally must first obtain a search warrant in a proceeding showing a "neutral and detached" magistrate that there is "probable cause". Illinois. (Federal Rule . Gideon v. 407 U. the criminal defendant can appeal a "guilty" verdict and an incarcerated criminal can file a "habeas corpus" writ.g. 367 (1979).S.S. even during custodial questioning by police. Another situation in which one can have two trials for the same event is a prosecution under state law (e. Johnson v. While legal scholars carefully explain the distinction between criminal and civil law. Wainwright. among other cases.S..J.. The standard in tort cases is what a reasonable and prudent man would have done. U. It may come as a surprise to know that these protections are not available in civil law. Argersinger v. it is possible to try a defendant in criminal court and then try the same defendant again in civil court. 378 U. for the same event. In civil law. 384 U.S.S. Indigent defendants have the right to an attorney who is paid by the state. 410 (1969). the details of applying this standard to the facts of the case is decided by the jury. robbery). then a second prosecution in a federal court under federal statute (e.g. Arizona. 2. and unknown to the defendant until the end of the trial. 372 U. for assault and battery) in a state court. such as robbery). 333 U.

. the suspect or defendant has the right to remain silent during questioning by police and prosecuting attorneys. The prohibition against double jeopardy applies only to criminal trials. the defendant in a civil case must voluntarily provide names of people who are "likely to have discoverable information relevant to disputed facts alleged with particularity in the pleadings. the plaintiff usually pays for expert witnesses. in a civil case." [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(1)(B)] Further. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30. and other expenses. 34(c). In civil law. the defendant in a civil case must help his/her opponent collect evidence that will defeat the defendant. not that all men know the law. the defendant in a civil case in Federal court must voluntarily provide his/her opponent with a copy of documents "in the possession. or control of the party that are relevant to disputed facts alleged with particularity in the pleadings. The one notable exception is in tort law. where attorneys for plaintiffs often take cases with the possibility of large awards (e. So much for "speedy trial"! People who can not pay for an attorney (legal fees for trial preparation often run to more than US$ 100. the defendant may choose to refuse to be a witness. but because 'tis an excuse every man will plead. However.000) on a contingency fee: the attorney is paid.of Civil Procedure 34). an attorney may demand information from the opposing party about any matter that is relevant to the case. but the attorney is paid nothing for his/her time if plaintiff loses. then the judge will instruct the jury that they may make an adverse inference against the party who refused to testify. at trial. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1). In a criminal case. And. if a party invokes their fifth amendment privilege against selfincrimination. In fact. In civil law.000) are practically unable to obtain access to the courts in civil cases. for example. 1/3 of any award.g. and no man can tell how to confute him. ignorance of the law is no excuse The statement "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is an ancient legal doctrine: Ignorance of the law excuses no man." [FRCP 26(a)(1)(A)] In other words. These expenses can be tens of thousands of dollars. more than US$ 500. provided that information is not privileged. an attorney may properly demand information that would be inadmissible at trial. However.. if such demand "appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence". There are often several years between the filing of a complaint in a civil case and the trial. custody. The corresponding concept in civil litigation is res judicata: one can have only one trial for claims arising from one transaction or occurrence. and the jury may infer nothing from the defendant's choice not to testify. In a criminal case. and require them to bring documents with them. the defendant must be available and cooperative for depositions and testimony as a witness in the trial. deposition transcripts. An attorney may even take the deposition of nonparties in a civil case.

Minnesota v. merely by saying "I didn't know it was wrong/illegal". 401 U. and could have asked.S. However. federal statutes) occupied 990 cm of library shelf space. Code (i. The law regards "wilful blindness" as equivalent to knowledge. Jewell. U. Cited with approval in U. Freed. the law in the USA has swelled to a size that is unknowable even by experts. or by deceit. v. 946. U. So the doctrine is a practical necessity. the annotated edition of the New York state statutes occupied 675 cm of library shelf space. If a defendant were allowed to escape legal responsibility for his acts. These are things like speeding and parking violations. state or country).2d 693.htm revised 19 Oct 2002 return to my homepage Answer Criminal law refers to those actions that have been declared illegal. 950-951 (5th Cir.S. They do not result in loss of freedom. . either through physical. 149 (1994). 532 F. cert. 601. WESTLAW). In Oct 1998. financial. Who can know all that is within these pages? A criminal law class in law school contains only about 40 hours of lectures. 135.. 1976). The only solution seems to be a detailed search of statutes and cases in a database on a computer (e.S.g.. A related concept in law is "wilful blindness": the criminal defendant who should have known. 1689.S. the system of using law to regulate human conduct would collapse. though they can result in loss of privilages or fines. for example. meaning that it is against the moral principles of society. meaning that they are against the law because someone has said so.. 1990). this document is at http://www. 510 U. This doctrine still has vitality and validity today.W.2d. 919 F. 697 (1977).S. 700-701 (9th Cir. 612 (1971) (Brennan.2d 697. They are normally punished with fines and/or loss of freedom through jail or probation.S. U. 426 U. posthumously published in Table Talk. with a little about larceny and rape.John Selden (1584-1654).e. Civil laws are malum prohibitum. v. the annotated edition of the U. but deliberately chose not to ask. Lara-Velasquez. or emotional injury. concurring). Ratzlaf v..com/cc.S. See. In Oct 1998. Criminal laws are malum per se. 257 N. mostly about homicides. v. denied. plus the avoidance of any behavior that harms people. They are prosecuted by the state (city. 951 (1976). J. The defendant is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or found not guilty.S. King.rbs2.

or they are found not liable.W. or a seperate cause of action even when a crime has been committed. robberies. A famous example is that OJ was tried twice.'s. in which no criminal laws have been broken Answer In criminal law the burden of proof is that guilt must be shown beyond all reasonable doubt. once on a criminal action for murder where he was acquitted.I. etc. which he was found liable for. meaning they jury believes that it is likely that the defendant did what they are accused of by more than 50% of the evidence. or governments.Civil Law deals with disagreements between citizens were no crime has been committed. Criminal law deals with criminal activities such as D. a landlord taking a tenant to court to get any rent due.com/Q/What_is_the_difference_between_civil_and_criminal_law#ix zz1Fzx4Jouw Civil Law vs Criminal Law [Edit Comparison Table] Hide Civil Law Criminal Law All "Preponderance of evidence" Burden of proof: "Beyond a reasonable hide Burden of proof is doubt": Burden of initially on the plaintiff and then proof is always on the switches to the state/government. and once for a wrongful death suit. etc. The defendant is found liable by a preponderance of the evidenct. Answer criminal laws are laws that seek to prevent people frok deliberately or recklessly harming each other or each other's property civil laws seek to prevent disputes between individuals. Answer Civil law pertains to non criminal charges such as a person owes someone a debt and hasn't paid. .answers.wih criminal laws you have to prove beyond reasonable doubt and with civil you have to prove preponderance of evidence. organizations. assaults. Whiles in civil law the burden of proof is that liability must be shown on the balance of probabilities Read more: http://wiki.

Criminal law (also known as penal law) is the body of statutory and common law that hide deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses. Either party (plaintiff or defendant) can be found at fault. Losing defendant or. Civil law deals with the disputes between individuals. organizations. Theft (by deception or hide hide hide . A guilty defendant A defendant in civil litigation is never is punished by either incarceration in a incarcerated and jail or fine paid to never executed. the government.Hide Civil Law Criminal Law All defendants. divorce By government. in exceptional in civil litigation Type of punishment: only reimburses the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant s behavior. Case filed: By private party. the death penalty. in which compensation is awarded to the victim. cases. Landlord/tenant Examples: disputes. Defendant can be found guilty or not. Crimes are divided into two broad classes: Felonies and Misdemeanors. or Definition: between the two.

C. The person who has suffered gets a definite benefit from the law.redress or punishment. . The object of civil law is the redress of wrongs by compelling compensation or restitution: the wrongdoer is not punished. wanton endangerment. property disputes (real estate or material). child custody assault. 9th ed. etc. or at least he avoids a loss. in the case of crimes. The hide in a civil suit. he only suffers so much harm as is necessary to make good the wrong he has done. alcohol intoxication. According to William Geldart. robbery. unlawful taking). etc.. Introduction to English Law 146 (D. Yardley ed. The difference between civil law and criminal law turns on the difference between two different objects which law seeks to pursue . On the other hand.Hide Civil Law Criminal Law All proceedings. trafficking in controlled substances.M. to give him and others a strong inducement not to commit same or similar crimes. the main object of the law is to punish the wrongdoer. prosecution cannot appeal if the defendant is found not guilty. Civil law and criminal law are two broad and separate entities of law with separate sets of laws and punishments. Only the defendant may appeal a court Either party may Appeal: ruling in a appeal a decision criminal case. 1984). proceedings.

In case of criminal law a person found guilty is punished by incarceration in a prison. misdemeanors having a maximum possible sentence of less than one year incarceration. the case is filed by a private party which may be an individual. litigation is filed by the government (called the prosecution) against a defendant. Contents [hide] 1 Case 2 Punishment 3 Burdens of proof 4 How the system works 5 See Also 6 References [edit] Case In civil law. [edit] Burdens of proof . or in some occasion s death penalty. an organization. the amount of loss which is determined by the judge and is called punitive damage. a company. only the prosecution can do this. a fine. or a corporation against another party called the plaintiff. On the other hand. A criminal litigation is more serious than civil litigation in that criminal defendants have more rights and protections than a civil defendant. [edit] Punishment One of the notable differences between civil law and criminal law is the punishment. Punitive damages are never awarded in a civil case. in case of civil law the losing party has to reimburse the plaintiff. Crimes are divided into two broad classes: felonies having a maximum possible sentence of more than one year incarceration. in a criminal law case.to reform him if possible and perhaps to satisfy the public sense that wrongdoing ought to meet with retribution. An individual can never file criminal charges against another person. Whereas.

the Government. This is called a system of public prosecutions. DWI Separation vs. Civil law deals with the harm. while in a criminal case defendant may be found guilty or not. Public funds are used to pay for these services.com/civil-law.gov.html http://www. and protecting the society.articleclick. which is very low as compared to 99% proof for criminal law. [edit] See Also Common Law vs Statutory Law Lawyer vs Solicitor Jail vs Prison Bond vs. then plaintiffs win. not the person who complains of the incident.sk. if a charge has been properly presented and if there is evidence supporting it.In case of criminal law. loss. A defendant in a civil case is found liable or not liable for damages. you report it to the police and then it is their duty to investigate the matter and find the suspect . In case of criminal law. civil law is about private disputes between individuals or between an individual and an organization or between organizations.ca/docs/social/law30/unit03/03_01_sh. In most cases. Divorce [edit] References http://www. in case of civil law the burden of proof first lies with the plaintiff and then with the defendant to refute the evidence provided by the plaintiffs. the burden of proof lies with the government in order to prove that the defendant is guilty. In case of civil litigation if the judge or jury believes that there are more than 50% of the evidence favoring the plaintiffs. or injury to one party or the other. defendant is not declared guilty unless there are approximately more than 99% proofs against him. If suppose you are the victim of the crime.sasklearning. On the other hand. prosecutes it in the courts. It involves punishing and rehabilitating offenders. Bail DUI vs. The police and prosecutor are hired by the government to put the criminal law into effect. [edit] How the system works One can say that criminal law deals with looking after public interests.html . On the other hand.

org/wiki/Civil_law_%28common_law%29 http://members. the parties involved are private individuals. This means that the case can be between two people or between a company and a person.com: Read more: Civil Law vs Criminal Law .htm Follow Diffen.wikipedia. the courts have been a place where people are able to seek justice for themselves and their families.mobar.com/difference/Civil_Law_vs_Criminal_Law#ixzz1FzxBEJQg Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law Categorized under Business Civil Law vs Criminal Law For any country. and it is here where the differences between civil and criminal law can be most visibly seen.Difference and Comparison | Diffen http://www. . criminal law cases involve the government as one of the parties in the case.http://en.org/civics/DifferencesCivilCrim. there are a number of differences between the two. Parties Involved One of the main differences between civil law and criminal law are the parties that are involved when cases are heard. Oftentimes. victims are given the option by their lawyers to have their case heard as a civil law matter or as a criminal law matter. While many of the cases can be tried in both courts. On the other hand. In the case of civil law cases. This is the reason why these cases are tried by a district attorney and a public defender instead of the parties hiring their personal lawyers to do the job.diffen.

Penalties Imposed The difference between civil and criminal law is also seen on the penalties that are imposed to those that have been found guilty of the charges imposed.Decisions to be Made Another difference between civil law and criminal law court hearings is the decisions that need to be reached by the court hearing the case. 2. Summary: 1. In criminal law cases. the evidence that is presented is done in order to help determine whether the defendant is indeed guilty of the charges without a reasonable doubt. criminal law court hearings need to decide as to whether the defendant indeed violated a statute that has been instigated by the local government for the protection of the entire society as a whole. In a civil law case.differencebetween. Civil law mandates that the accuser must prove that substantial harm has been inflicted on him or her by the defendant in order to be awarded some form of monetary compensation Read more: Difference Between Civil and Criminal Law | Difference Between | Civil vs Criminal Law http://www. Criminal law deals with court cases that are between the government and the defendant. compensation may also be awarded to the victim and his or her family alongside some form of punishment. 3. On the other hand. As a result. The purpose in criminal law cases is to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt and imposing imprisonment and punishment as a result of this. usually involving a stay in prison determined and decided upon by the court. Civil law deals with court cases that are between two private parties. the issue to be decided upon is whether or not the defendant had indeed caused any form of harm to the complainant based on the evidence supporting the claim of the complainant. Criminal and civil law covers the different aspects of society in order to ensure that the rights of all citizens are respected and honored.net/business/difference-between-civil-andcriminal-law/#ixzz1FzxT4Lcb . penalties come in the form of compensation usually in the form of a sum of money that will be awarded to the victim and his or her family. For civil law cases.

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