Criminal Law vs. Civil Law: Definitions and Differences

Chapter 4 / Lesson 2
Share Feedback Rate
  • 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
Create An Account
To Start This Course Today
Used by over 10 million students worldwide
Create An Account
Try it free for 5 days
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

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:

  • Murder
  • Theft
  • Robbery
  • Bribery
  • Embezzlement

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

Felony Crimes

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.

Misdemeanor Crimes

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:

  • Fraud
  • Breach of contract
  • Negligence
  • Workers' compensation-related injuries
Continue reading...
Start Your Free Trial To Take This Quiz

As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 8,500 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.

Free 5-day trial
It only takes a few minutes to set up and you can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access

Practice Chapter Exam


Practice Final Exam

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 100 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,900 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Education Portal has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.


Watch all the video lessons you want free for 5 days
Select a plan to try & see why over 10 million users love Education Portal
Start Free Trial