Criminal Law vs. Civil Law: Definitions and Differences
- Track Progress
- 0:39 Criminal Law Examined
- 1:55 Felony Crimes
- 2:36 Misdemeanor Crimes
- 3:10 Civil Law Examined
- 4:03 Civil Law in Action
- 4:36 Lesson Summary
The distinct differences between criminal law and civil law are in the type of action against the defendant and the type of remedy sought. A civil case involves individuals in a dispute and generally ends in monetary reward. Criminal cases are considered crimes against society and usually end in jail or prison time.
Criminal Law vs. Civil Law
In most cases, the difference between criminal and civil law is quite clear. A man runs into a bank brandishing a gun, demands money and runs off. That is a crime of bank robbery and is punishable by incarceration. When a man checks into a hotel, runs up charges at the restaurant and bar and leaves without paying, he is defrauding a business and is punished differently. He will pay fines and make restitution. There are several things that set criminal law apart from civil law. In order to better understand the difference, let's first take a look at criminal law.
Criminal Law Examined
Criminal law is a set of rules and regulations that describe behaviors that are prohibited by the government. The behaviors generally involve things that would affect public safety and the welfare of society as a whole. Examples of criminal acts are:
When a criminal act is committed and a person is brought to trial by the state or federal government, it is up to the prosecuting party to prove that the defendant committed the crime. This is known as the burden of proof. In criminal cases, the plaintiff must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. This means that the plaintiff must demonstrate that a reasonable person would agree that a crime took place based on the evidence presented. If there is any doubt on the part of a reasonable person, the burden to provide further evidence rides on the plaintiff. The defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty by a judge or jury. The punishment for criminal acts generally involves incarceration and/or fines and even death in extreme cases.
Certain rights are extended to defendants:
- The right to a speedy trial
- The right to counsel
- Protection against self-incrimination
- Protection against unreasonable search and seizure
- Protection against double jeopardy
There are two types of criminal acts:
- Felony acts
- Misdemeanor acts
A felony is a serious crime that is punishable by serving time in prison for more than one year. In State of Florida v. Zimmerman, it is alleged that George Zimmerman committed second-degree murder. Zimmerman shot his victim during a routine patrol of his neighborhood. The murder was not premeditated, meaning Zimmerman did not plan on killing anyone that fateful evening. The shooting took place during a scuffle with what Zimmerman thought was an intruder, and he acted in self-defense. The state disagrees. This is a high-profile case of murder, and Zimmerman is being accused of committing a felony.
A misdemeanor, on the other hand, is a lesser criminal act that is punishable by a shorter jail sentence and fines. In The State of Oregon v. Hood River Juice, the defendant was accused of polluting natural resources like streams and other bodies of water with chemicals used to process juice. The owner of Hood River Juice pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor crime of polluting and received a punishment of either 80 days of community service or 48 hours in jail. Obviously, polluting a local water source is less heinous than gunning down an unarmed man, and therefore carries a lesser punishment.
Civil Law Examined
Civil law deals with disputes between individuals, groups and organizations who seek an award of compensation for their troubles. Examples of civil cases are:
- Breach of contract
- Workers' compensation-related injuries
When two parties disagree on something, they can take it to civil court. The plaintiff initiates the claim, and the defendant responds by either pleading guilty or innocent. Unlike criminal law, which requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, in a civil case, the burden of proof is based on preponderance of evidence - or the greater weight on the meaning of the evidence - not the amount of evidence. In other words, evidence needs to be convincing even if it is gathered from only one source. Punishment in civil law generally involves compensation for injuries sustained by the plaintiff or disposition of property. Incarceration is never a remedy in a civil suit.
Civil Law in Action
In Pelman v. McDonald's, the plaintiff alleged that McDonald's Corporation was responsible for their obesity and health problems. In Pelman's case, they believed McDonald's falsely advertised its food as being healthy. The Pelman family patronized McDonald's quite frequently. This caused the family to develop diabetes, obesity and other ailments. For this, the Pelmans wanted compensation and for McDonald's to change the way it advertises its food choices. Incidentally, the case was thrown out of court.
Criminal law and civil law differ in the type of action against the defendant and the type of remedy sought. Criminal cases are considered crimes against society that usually end in jail or prison time. The severity of the crime determines the punishment. A felony is a serious crime, like murder, and carries a prison term of no less than one year. A misdemeanor is less serious and may result in a shorter jail term and fines. Both criminal and civil cases require that the plaintiff prove the case, but the type of evidence necessary differs. Criminal cases require that the plaintiff hold the burden of proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt.
A civil case involves individuals in a dispute that generally ends in monetary reward. A civil case requires preponderance of evidence. The evidence a plaintiff is required to present does not have to be lengthy, it just has to be convincing. A good way to understand the difference between criminal and civil law is to review actual legal cases. In our lesson, we analyzed real cases to distinguish the difference between the types of law.
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Chapters in Business 103: Introductory Business Law
- 1. History of American Law (6 lessons)
- 2. Sources of Law (15 lessons)
- 3. American Legal Systems (12 lessons)
- 4. Legal Procedures (11 lessons)
- 5. Contract Law Basics (19 lessons)
- 6. Capacity in Contract Law (4 lessons)
- 7. Contract Law and Third Party Beneficiaries (3 lessons)
- 8. Contracts: Assignment and Delegation (4 lessons)
- 9. Contracts: Statute of Frauds (7 lessons)
- 10. Contracts: Scopes and Meanings (6 lessons)
- 11. Contracts: Breach of Contract (11 lessons)
- 12. Contracts: Discharge of Contracts (5 lessons)
- 13. The Legal Environment (2 lessons)
- 14. Property Law (10 lessons)
- 15. Employment and Labor Law (13 lessons)
- 16. Creditors Rights (4 lessons)
- 17. Product Liability and Consumer Protection (6 lessons)
- 18. Torts (13 lessons)
- 19. Agency (7 lessons)
- 20. Types of Business Organizations (7 lessons)
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