Criminal vs. Civil Court: Understanding the Difference
The U.S. justice system is made up of two different branches, each addressing different issues
If you’re seeking justice through the U.S. court system, knowing the differences between the two existing bodies of law is imperative to managing your expectations and predicting your success. The dual branches of the legal system each address their own classification of wrongdoing while determining appropriate punishment or compensation for various crimes. Understanding the nuances of both criminal and the civil court can give you a broader view of the court system and a better idea of how to approach legal retribution.
The judges of the criminal and the civil court have different powers, and the intent and outcome of each vary in scope:
- Criminal law addresses behavior that is an offense against the public, such as theft, murder, assault, or illegal activity related to drugs or alcohol. Criminal judges can sentence a defendant to jail for breaking the law.
- Civil law compensates victims for behavior that causes some form of injury to an individual or corporation, such as libel or slander, breach of contract, property damage, or negligence that results in injury or death. Civil court judges can order the guilty party to pay a fine or can make decisions about family or personal property.
The many differences between criminal and civil law include who brings charges or files suit, how cases are decided, what penalties may be imposed, what standards of proof suffice, and what legal protections may be available.
Making a criminal case
In criminal court, the federal or state government initiates the case against someone for committing a crime. Punishment generally ranges from paying a fine to imprisonment, and the case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Constitutional rights protect defendants against unjust conduct from police or prosecutors, including unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to remain silent to prevent compelled self-incrimination. The state will also provide a public defender if the defendant is unable to afford an attorney. If you are the victim of a crime, you do not need a lawyer in criminal court; the state provides the prosecutor since they are filing charges.
Keeping it civil
In civil court, one person (or business) files a case against another individual to settle a dispute. The person who loses the case may be ordered to pay a fine or return property but will not go to jail.
To win a case, the plaintiff must prove their case according to a preponderance of evidence which is a lower standard for proof than required in criminal court cases. Defendants are also not entitled to the legal protections offered in criminal court, and each side must provide their own legal representation.
Civil courts handle cases about:
- Money, debts, or contracts
- Housing, including eviction, foreclosure, or living conditions
- Family, including divorce, custody, child support or guardianship
Occasionally, a crime can cross the line between public offense and private injury, resulting in both criminal and civil charges. For instance, O.J. Simpson, former football player, was accused of murdering his wife and her friend in a highly publicized criminal court case.
Although he was acquitted in the 1995 criminal case, two years later a civil suit found him liable for their wrongful deaths, and a judge ordered him to pay $25 million in punitive damages to the families of the Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Although there wasn’t enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal court, the preponderance of evidence was sufficient in civil court.
Understanding your legal rights and the two different facets of the United States’ court system is important when determining how to approach your journey to justice. If you’ve been the victim of criminal wrongdoing, a call to the police is the most vital step to getting started. If the civil court is the most appropriate venue for your grievances, you will need to seek out the help of a lawyer, or contact legal aid or a related non-profit to help you file a suit to attempt to recover your losses.