Civil Case vs. Criminal Case: What’s the Difference?

Updated February 14, 2024
5 min read
Title "Civil Contempt vs Criminal Contempt", suitcase, Themis, handcuffs, papers, US flag, building

According to U.S. law, there are two different types of legal cases: civil cases and criminal cases. But how is a civil case different from a criminal case?

Broadly speaking, the state initiates a criminal case, which deals with issues that affect society. A business or individual seeking financial compensation initiates a civil case. However, there are many more differences between civil vs criminal cases that are important to understand. This guide will explain the difference between a civil and criminal case, the types of crimes that fall under civil case vs criminal case, and how situations can sometimes lead to civil and criminal action.

Civil vs. Criminal Case

Criminal cases are related to crimes that affect society and come with larger and more severe punishments. These cases need hard evidence for a conviction, which is decided by a jury, and the defendant has more rights. In comparison, civil offenses are against a specific individual or organization, and less evidence is required for conviction. The punishment is usually a monetary award as decided by a judge, and the defendant has fewer rights.

For better understanding, here is a closer look at the differences between a civil vs criminal case.

1. Who the crime is against

Criminal law deals with situations that affect the public or society as a whole, such as murder and assault. Although the criminal may have murdered or assaulted one victim, it has implications for the rest of society if justice is not served. Only the state will be able to initiate a criminal trial and bring criminal charges against you.

On the other hand, civil law constitutes any illegal wrongdoing that is targeted toward a specific person or corporation, such as a breach of contract or damage to property. Therefore, the legal dispute is between two parties. In a civil lawsuit and civil court meaning, it is usually the individual that has brought the case to the attention of the court and initiated litigation.

2. The standard of proof required

There is also a disparity in the standard of proof for a suspect to be charged with a civil case vs criminal case. For an individual to be convicted of a crime, it must be proven “beyond reasonable doubt” that they are responsible. There will be a jury in almost all instances to help ensure fair and reasonable justice.

What is a civil court case? It typically has lower standards and is easier to prove as it requires less evidence. For a civil case to be proven true, only “preponderance of evidence” is needed, meaning there is over a 50 percent chance that the claim is true based on the evidence presented. The majority of civil cases will be decided on the judge’s verdict. These differences between civil and criminal cases are mainly in place due to the varying degrees of punishment associated with both, which brings us to our next point.

3. The type of punishment

As criminal cases are seen as an issue to the whole of society and typically involve more severe illegal activities, the type of punishment associated is also more serious. Most individuals proven guilty of a crime will face jail time or, depending on the jurisdictional laws of the state, may face the death penalty. Comparatively, civil cases do not involve imprisonment. Instead, they usually involve a monetary punishment – such as paying fines or compensating for any damage caused – an injunction or a combination of both.

4. Rights and protection

The rights and protection of the defendant also impact the differences between civil and criminal cases. All defendants in a criminal trial have the right to an attorney. Any individual who cannot afford one themselves will have one provided by the state, so they receive fair representation. However, people in a civil case have to represent themselves if they cannot afford a lawyer. You can also contact nonprofit organizations that offer free legal advice for people facing litigation if you cannot afford paid legal support.

Criminal cases are also protected by constitutional rights such as the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens’ privacy and prevents an illegal search and seizure by government officials. The Fifth Amendment is also in place to protect against compelled self-incrimination. In contrast, these rights are not given to defendants in civil cases.

Examples of Criminal and Civil Cases

As mentioned, criminal cases typically affect or have the potential to affect society as a whole. They may be targeting one individual, but the impact is much wider-spread. On the other hand, civil cases deal with the rights and property of individuals or organizations. To better understand whether the offense in question is regarded as a civil or criminal case, here is a list of the types of cases that fall into each category.

Criminal law cases

Criminal court cases examples which affect society include, but are not limited to:

  • Murder and manslaughter

  • Drug dealing, money laundering, and fraud

  • Assault, including sexual assault and battery

  • Criminal damage or arson

  • Burglary and theft

Civil law cases

Examples of civil offenses which affect an individual or corporation include, but are not limited to:

  • Personal injury, including road traffic accidents or medical negligence

  • Family law, such as divorce disputes and child custody arrangements

  • Disputes over contracts, property damage, or payments

  • Employee discrimination or unfair dismissal

  • Landlord and tenant cases

Can a Person Face Criminal & Civil Action?

While criminal and civil lawsuits are distinctive from one another, there can be an overlap. When this happens, an individual can face both criminal and civil action. This typically occurs when a criminal trial is dismissed, but the family or individual still seeks personal compensation. As criminal cases are harder to prove, a criminal trial may be dismissed due to lack of evidence while the civil case is later proven true.

Final Thoughts

Although there can be overlap, there are significant differences between civil and criminal cases in the U.S. legal system. Criminal law encompasses murder, theft, assault, or any other criminal activity that affects society, whereas civil law seeks compensation for offenses against an individual or an organization. Aside from the offenses themselves, differences between criminal and civil law also include the rights of the defendants, the amount of evidence required, and the punishment given. 

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