Civil and Criminal Cases

Ever wondered what the difference is between a civil and a criminal case?


When you’re in trouble and being arrested or being sued, you may wonder why the two types of cases are different.  Here’s why.

            In both a criminal and civil case you are being taken to court because you have committed an act society considers wrong.  In both cases the law is trying to compensate for the harm you have committed.  

            An act is considered a crime if the Federal Constitution or Federal or State Law defines the act as a crime.  A state is more limited that the federal government when defining what is and what is not a crime.  A state cannot define something as a criminal offense that the Constitution or Federal Statute has defined as a civil offense. 

            There are two main defining differences between civil and criminal offenses. 

First, in a criminal case the plaintiff is always the government, whether it is the city/municipality, the state, or the Federal government.  That is why the person asking for the defendant to be put in jail on TV will always be a public prosecutor.   

            Which leads to the second difference.  In a criminal case, the plaintiff (i.e. the government) is asking that the person they believe committed the offense serve time in prison.  In a civil case, the plaintiff (who is a private citizen) is asking for damages in the form of money or specific performance, i.e. they are asking the court to make the defendant do something (or not do something if they’re asking for an injunction). 

            So wait a minute!  What if I get a speeding ticket or something?  Is that civil or criminal? 

            The answer is neither.  If you protest a speeding ticket, a parking ticket, or a jay-walking ticket, those are administrative cases.  While you may see a public prosecutor at an administrative hearing, you won’t be jailed for speeding unless you are driving under the influence (which is a crime) or hit the officer (which is also a criminal offense).  With an administrative case you are facing a fine, just like in a civil case. 


            One thing everyone should realize is that in a criminal case the standard of evidence will be greater than in a civil case.  This means that it will be harder to convict someone of a criminal offense than to find them guilty of a civil offense.  This is one of the reasons why OJ Simpson, for example, was not convicted of murder but was found guilty in a civil court for contributing to the death of his wife. 

            The reason behind this is that the Founding Fathers believed that loss of liberty was more important than loss of money.  So any time you get fined and the judge refuses to reconsider based on evidence you think is scanty, thank the framers of the Constitution.

            A final difference between a civil and a criminal case are the rights you receive. 

            Again, because the Founding Fathers considered depriving a person of liberty was worse than being fined, you get more consideration when you’re arrested than if you’re fined.

            Everyone is familiar with the statement a police officer has to make when you’re arrested.  Your Miranda (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 US 436) warning must be delivered to you every time you are arrested for a criminal offense or the police may not use your testimony in court.

            There are no such rights in a civil case.  You do not have the right to a public defender, nor do you have the right to take the 5th (the 5th amendment against self-incrimination).  Anything you say during in public during a civil case can and will be used against you in court.

            So keep in mind if you’re being sued for a civil offense, like breach of contract (debt or foreclosure), that you will have to prove that the person suing you is not entitled to the relief they’re seeking or that their story is not more likely than not to be true.

If you’ve been arrested then you’ll have to show that the police did not have a reason to arrest you or that it is more likely than not the other government’s evidence is wrong.  Not an easy job for anyone.