Criminal and Civil Law: What’s the Difference?

by Tabetha Cooper

What is the difference between criminal and civil law?  That is a question that ever American citizen needs to know.  This nation has developed a strong need for each of these forms of law and their implications are definitely different.  Through an understanding of their definitions, their punishments, and how they apply in society a person can clearly distinguish between the two.
English: 1998 copy of the Indiana Code, the cr...
English: 1998 copy of the Indiana Code, the criminal and civil law of Indiana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
            Criminal law deals with the laws of an individual state or country that regulate criminal offenses and determines the punishment of such offenses.  Civil law, on the other hand, deals with the regulation of a state or nation’s private matters of the individuals therein.  Lippman (2006) states it best, saying civil law is designed to protect an “individual’s interest” and criminal law is in place to protect the “public’s interest.”  Criminal law has two classification, felonies and misdemeanors.  A felony is a criminal act that deserves a prison sentence of a year or more and in severe cases (in some states) the death penalty.  A misdemeanor is an offense that in relatively minor and punishment can range from fines up to a year in jail or prison.  Civil law awards no jail time at all.  If the case falls under contract law the defendant is ordered to “reimburse the plaintiff for damages.”  If it falls under tort law, the defendant may be ordered to pay punitive damages in addition to the reimbursement (Standler, 1998).
            A defendant that is being tried in a criminal case is protected under the United States 
English: First page of a sample eTrace Report ...
English: First page of a sample eTrace Report as used in a criminal case (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Constitution.  They can exercise their rights to due process, privacy, assistance of counsel, speedy trials, against self incrimination, and against double jeopardy.  A defendant in a civil case is not protected under any of these rights.  On the contrary, he has to relinquish any documents asked of him that pertain to a case and he is made to testify on his behalf or the judgment can automatically be made against him.  In addition it can take weeks, months, and in most cases even years before the case is ever brought before a judge.  Defendants are not entitled to be represented by an attorney and if desire to be must do so at their own expense.  If the defendant happens to win the case another suit can be brought against her at a later time (Standler 1998).
            Now that an evaluation the definitions of both civil and criminal law, the punishments of each, and how they are applied in society has been made, everyone can be informed of the differences of these laws.  As citizens go about their daily lives, it is hoped that they know the difference between both criminal and civil law.  A bigger hope is that through this understand, citizens can avoid ever having to be subject to either form of law.

Lippman, M. (2007). Contemporary Criminal Law: Concepts, Cases, and Controversies. Sage                   Publishing. Thousand Oaks, Ca.
Standler, R. B. (1998). Differences Between Civil and Criminal Law in the USA. Retrieved         6.14.10 from  http://www.rbs2.com/cc.htm

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