Do you know the difference in civil versus criminal law?
Most people in the United States have a Hollywood view of the law. We see shows like Law and Order or Criminal Minds. We watch classic movies like A Few Good Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. And we believe that is how the law works. If we are honest with ourselves, though, we know that television and movie studios do not always give the most accurate portrayals of our legal system.
If you know that Hollywood views of the law might be distorted, you turn to news stations for more realistic views of courtroom drama and legal strategies. You might have even followed high profile, real-life cases like the O.J. Simpson trials, the trials against the officers who beat Rodney King, the trials against the officers who restrained George Floyd, or the trials against Casey Anthony. If so, you have a great start on your legal education.
There’s More to Law than the Movies
However, if your basic understanding of the law comes from television, movies, or the news, you are only getting half of the education you need. You are learning how criminal law in America works. But you are missing the other half of our legal system – civil law.
In fact, one of the most basic, yet misunderstood, legal issues in the United States is the difference between civil versus criminal law.
Most of the trials you see in the news or movies are criminal cases. However, half (if not more) of the cases brought to court in America are civil cases. And most likely, if you ever bring someone to court or get brought to court yourself, you will be involved in a civil case.
For that reason, I want to discuss the 4 main differences between civil versus criminal law.
4 Differences between Civil versus Criminal Law
The 1st Difference in Civil versus Criminal Law – Charges v. Lawsuits
- In criminal law, the government charges defendants with crimes.
Governmental jurisdictions in the United States have written laws to protect citizens and to maintain order. Those laws declare, “You cannot do these things. We think these actions harm our society, our city, our county, our state, our federal government, or our people in some way.”
Therefore, if you do those actions, you have broken the law. In other words, you have committed a crime against the government. As our own Chelsey Rogers says, “You have offended the state!”
That means that a prosecuting attorney for the government will charge a person with a crime. That person becomes a defendant. And the case will be recorded in court as State v. Person. For instance, if I were charged with a crime, my case would be listed as State of Maryland v. Virginia Tehrani.
- In civil law, plaintiffs sue defendants for liability.
While prosecutors charge defendants with crimes in criminal law, plaintiffs sue other people for liability, or responsibility, in civil law.
No crime has been committed (necessarily). However, the plaintiff has been injured. And that person is suing the defendant for damages he or she incurred because of the defendant’s actions (or lack of action in some cases).
This type of case is most clearly demonstrated in a traffic accident. The driver did not mean to rear end or T-bone another car. But, he did. Assuming he was not driving drunk or speeding (which would be crimes), he did not commit a crime against the people he hit. HOWEVER, he is responsible for their injuries. Thus, the plaintiff will file a lawsuit against him. Subsequently, this case will be recorded in court as Jane Doe v. John Smith.
The 2nd Difference in Civil versus Criminal Law – Guilt v. Liability
- In criminal law, a defendant is found guilty or not guilty.
Since a defendant is brought to court on charges of breaking the law, he will be found either “guilty” or “not guilty” of those charges.
The defendant can plead guilty to charges before the case against him is brought to trial. If the government has a compelling case against him, the defendant might agree to a plea deal. Why would he do this? To avoid trial or to lessen the severity of his punishment or the severity of the charges against him.
Assuming a plea bargain is either not given by the prosecutor or not accepted by the defendant, the case against the defendant will go to trial. If that happens, a judge decides his guilt in a bench trial or a jury of twelve peers determines his guilt in a jury trial.
- In civil law, a defendant is found liable or not liable.
On the other hand, a defendant in a civil lawsuit is typically sued for negligence. That means that he did not necessarily mean to hurt another person, but his actions caused the other person harm. Therefore, he will be found liable or not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.
In some cases of negligence, though, a defendant may attempt to prove that, while his actions contributed to the injuries the victim suffered, they were not the sole cause of the victim’s damages. With this comparative negligence or contributory negligence defense, a defense team can attempt to mitigate, or lessen, the amount of liability the defendant will bear.
The 3rd Difference in Civil versus Criminal Law – Incarceration v. Payout
- In criminal law, defendants can be sentenced to jail if they are found guilty.
The determination of a defendant’s guilt in a criminal case usually means the difference between freedom or incarceration. Based on the severity of the crime and the stipulations of each state’s law regarding appropriate punishments for each crime, the defendant could receive a sentence of days, months, or years in jail if he is found guilty. Some states even sentence defendants to death if their crimes are particularly egregious.
- In civil law, defendants can be required to pay or reimburse plaintiffs for damages incurred if they are found liable.
Comparatively, civil law deals with money, not freedom. If a defendant in a civil case is found liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, he will not lose his physical freedom. However, he could be required to reimburse the victim for medical expenses, work time lost, monetary impact on the family, and/or pain and suffering incurred because of the accident.
If he shares responsibility for the accident with others, a judge will assign percentages of responsibility to each defendant. Each responsible party would then owe that reimbursement percentage to the victim.
Assuming the defendant was covered by auto or homeowner’s insurance at the time of the accident, his insurance company would be responsible for payments to the victim. However, if the defendant did not have insurance coverage or if he intentionally hurt the victim, the judge will require him to pay for (reimburse) the victim’s expenses personally.
The 4th Difference between Civil Versus Criminal Law – Proof Required
- In criminal law, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crime.
Because the consequences of being found guilty of criminal charges carry the possibility of loss of an individual’s freedom (or even life), prosecuting attorneys must prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest standard of proof in our legal system.
If a defendant is charged with multiple crimes, a judge or jury could determine that the State proved its case regarding one or some of the crimes. However, they can dismiss other charges if there is a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt in some of them.
- In civil law, the plaintiff must only prove that the defendant is liable for damages based on a preponderance of the evidence.
Since the consequences of being found liable of civil charges are not incarceration or death, civil plaintiffs are not held to the same standard of proof as prosecuting attorneys. Instead, they must only prove that the defendant is liable based on a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, the judge or jury must be convinced that “it is more likely than not” the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injuries. For this standard, jurors do not have to be 100% sure a defendant is liable. They must just be convinced that it is more than 50% likely he is liable.
Both Sides of the Law
Unlike most lawyers, I have served as both a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney in criminal cases. I have also served as a plaintiff’s attorney and a defense attorney in civil cases. That diversity of experience has given me a greater understanding of the practice of law than many other attorneys have.
I can argue both sides of a criminal or civil case. That means I can anticipate strategies either side might use in litigation or in the courtroom. Yet just because I can argue both sides, does not mean that I do anymore.
After years of experience in each field, I have chosen to focus on civil law. Particularly, I enjoy working as a plaintiff’s attorney in personal injury lawsuits. For an in-depth view of personal injury law, stay tuned to my upcoming blogs!
In the meantime, listen to or watch my discussions with my law student Chelsey Rogers about the difference in civil versus criminal law with real life examples by clicking on the links below.