Criminal and civil law are two very different areas of law.

  • Criminal Law
  • In modern criminal law, the term crime does not have a universally accepted definition.

As a general definition that is not necessarily applicable to all crimes and situations but one that can be applied to many crimes in the United States, a crime is when a person knowingly and in some cases, unknowingly or unintentionally, breaks a federal, state, or local law.

A crime is any act or omission that violates a law and is punishable by the state. In this context the state can be a state’s government but it can mean any government. Federal and local governments can also charge and try a person for committing a crime against their laws. When someone commits a crime against the state, this could be causing harm to a government official or building but there are many, many crimes that are not directed towards the government even though the perpetrator has broken the law.

Typically, a law agency of the federal, state or local government will charge and arrest someone for a crime. Depending on the circumstances, some people may be able to get out of jail on bail or by other means while they await their trial, whereas others have to spend their time in jail from the time when they are initially arrested until their trial.

If someone is convicted of a crime, the government’s typical punishment is jail or prison time, and in some circumstances, fines, community service and/or probation. A crime can result in other penalties from other entities such as, the DMV may suspend or take away a driver’s license or an employer may take away a security clearance, etc.

  • Civil Law

Civil law cases involve disagreements between people or entities such as institutions, government agencies, businesses, etc. A civil lawsuit can be brought about by the plaintiff filing a claim against a defendant or defendants. In some circumstances where there are many plaintiffs with the same complaint against the same defendant or defendants, they may all use the same lawyer or team of lawers in what is commonly referred to as a class action lawsuit.

Plaintiffs typically sue for damages meaning, they sue for the harm the defendant caused them. While many civil lawsuits center on monetary compensation for causing bodily injury or damage to property, damages can be for things that are less tangible such as, slander or infringing on a copyright, etc. If a defendant is found guilty for something like one of these, they may be ordered to pay the plaintiff money but they may also be ordered to stop a behavior, use of something that doesn’t belong to them, make a public apology, etc.

Criminal and Civil Cases

The criminal courts and civil courts are two entirely separate systems. A person who is charged with a crime can also be sued in a civil case, regardless of the outcome of the criminal case.

An example of this is a DUI. A DUI is a criminal charge. If a person who is driving under the influence gets in an accident and injures one or more people, they will most likely be charged and tried for the crime of driving while under the influence. The injured person or people may also be able to file a civil claim against the criminally charged driver and sue them for monetary damages for expenses related to their injuries. It does not matter whether the driver is found guilty or innocent of their DUI charge, they can still be sued in a civil court.

Typically, criminal proceedings precede civil proceedings.