What’s the Difference Between Criminal Law and Civil Law?

October 1, 2010

Few things confuse people more than “The Law.”

One way to reduce this confusion is to understand the differences between civil law and criminal law. Though both categories work to protect our rights as citizens, they cover very different aspects of society.

Old Custer County Courtroom
Image by jimmywayne via Flickr

Civil Law deals with disagreements between private individuals (commercial or personal injury disputes, for example). Typically, one person will claim that the other person’s actions caused him harm, and file a civil suit seeking compensation for the damage caused.

The plaintiff (the person filing the suit) must demonstrate by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the defendant was responsible for the harm. In other words, only a majority (51%) of the evidence must support the plaintiff’s claim, which is a much lower burden of proof than is used in criminal cases.

In addition, only five of the six jurors (in a six-juror trial) or nine of the twelve jurors (in a 12 juror trial) must agree with the evidence, depending on whether you’re in District Court or Circuit Court. The jury then determines the monetary damages the defendant owes the plaintiff.

Criminal Law is designed to prevent citizens from deliberately harming each other, and involves actions that have been declared illegal by the state (murder, theft, assault, etc.). In a criminal case, the State or Federal Government brings the defendant to trial, and a guilty verdict usually results in jail time, a fine, or both.

In criminal cases, the defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence. Instead, the prosecutor must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” to a jury of 12, with a guilty verdict being unanimous. Compare that to the “9 out of 12″ rule for civil law.

A civil case can also be brought when a crime has been committed. The most famous example of this was the O.J. Simpson case where Simpson was found “not guilty” of murder in his criminal trail, but was found liable in a wrongful death civil suit a few years later. The jury ruled that the preponderance of evidence showed that Simpson was responsible for the wrongful death, and ordered him to pay damages to the victim’s family, even though the criminal trial found him not guilty.

The legal system isn’t nearly as intimidating when you understand the differences between civil and criminal law.

Especially when you obey both.

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