Civil Vs. Criminal Cases: What's the Difference?

by Team eLocal
Midsection of lawyer with arms crossed standing against books in shelves

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

What happens when a careless driver runs a red light and crashes into you? You probably realize there will be legal issues, but knowing what to expect from a court case can be difficult.

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In the U.S., there are civil and criminal cases. These cases have different purposes and procedures, but they sometimes arise from the same facts. Learning about the difference between civil and criminal law can help you better understand many legal issues.

What Is Criminal Law?

Criminal law is the part of the legal system that deals with prosecuting crimes. The government is almost always the party initiating a criminal case. Cities, states and the U.S. federal government prosecute criminal cases. The other party is typically a person charged with committing a crime.

The government in a criminal case represents the people of the state or other jurisdiction, and the law considers crimes to be offenses against society as well as any individual victim. A government prosecutor, such as a district attorney or an attorney general, prosecutes the crime in court.

Examples of crimes include:

  • Assaulting another person
  • Possessing an illegal item, such as drugs or prohibited weapons
  • Stealing
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol

A crime can be any act that violates a law included in the criminal statutes of a jurisdiction.

What Is Civil Law?

Civil law deals with legal disputes between private parties like people and businesses. Examples of civil lawsuits include:

  • Contract disputes
  • Divorces and child custody issues
  • Personal injury cases
  • Real estate disputes

Occasionally, the government is a party in a civil case, but not in the same way as a criminal case. For example, say a local government hires a construction company to build a new city facility. If the construction company fails to follow through on the contract, the city might sue the company. This case would be under civil law even though the government is a party. Citizens may also sue the government for civil rights violations, contract disputes and other civil law issues.

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What Are the Main Differences Between a Criminal and a Civil Case?

There are essential differences in civil and criminal cases, and knowing some of these differences can make the legal system easier to understand.

Different Potential Case Outcomes

A defendant who is found guilty in a criminal case faces:

  • Fines
  • Jail or prison
  • A criminal record
  • Community service
  • Probation

If the defendant is found not guilty, the case is over.

The outcome of a civil case depends on the type of lawsuit. Civil law cases often result in the court ordering one party to pay money to the other for injuries or contract violations. Divorces usually end with a judge dividing property and making orders about child custody.

Rights in Criminal Cases

Defendants in criminal cases have Constitutional rights that don't apply in civil cases. The U.S. Constitution grants these rights in criminal cases because a person's freedom may be at stake. These rights include things like the right to avoid self-incrimination and the right to an attorney.

In civil cases, both parties are usually required to pay for their own lawyer. Parties must exchange information and evidence, even if it might hurt their case.

Different Burden of Proof

Due to the seriousness of criminal cases, the government must prove its case against the defendant to the highest standard of proof. The standard of proof in criminal cases is "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The filing party in a civil case, called the plaintiff, need only prove their case by a "preponderance of the evidence." This standard generally only requires that a party prove something is "more likely than not."

Different Procedures

Civil and criminal courts have differing rules and procedures, and criminal cases tend to move faster. Court procedures also vary by jurisdiction, so you should check the specific rules for your case or speak with an attorney if you're involved in a legal dispute.

Overlap Between Civil and Criminal Cases

Sometimes, the same situation can lead to criminal and civil cases. For example, a drunk driver who crashes into your car has violated criminal laws. That driver may be arrested, face a criminal court case and go to jail. The police and government handle the criminal case at no cost to you, but you could be required to testify as a witness for either side.

Courts can sometimes order criminal defendants to pay restitution money to a victim, but this often doesn't cover the full costs a victim incurred. You might sue the drunk driver demanding that they pay for your medical bills, legal fees, any time you missed work and damage to your car. Your lawsuit against the driver would happen in civil court, and you would be responsible for representing yourself or hiring a private attorney.

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