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Civil Law vs. Criminal Law: What’s the Difference?

You’re heading home from the grocery store. You merge onto the freeway and unwittingly cut off another driver. You pick up the pace and switch to the middle lane, feeling a little remorse but eager to get home.

In a fury, the driver you cut off zooms past you in the fast lane before merging into your lane and aggressively brake-checking you. You slam on your brakes as hard as possible, but it’s too late. You’ve rear-ended them and are now wondering who’s at fault.

Civil law vs. criminal law: Under which category would this incident fall?

Understanding the difference between the two can help you pursue the compensation you’re rightfully entitled to and see that at-fault parties are criminally liable for their conduct.

This guide takes an in-depth look at these branches of law, how the burden of proof differs in each, and whether (if at all) they intersect. Read on.

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civil law vs criminal law
Civil Law VS Criminal Law

What Is Criminal Law?

Criminal law is a term that refers to a legal system established to reform or punish individuals who commit criminal acts against a nation, state, or individual. Criminal law in one jurisdiction may differ from what you find in another. A criminal case considered a minor offense in one state might be more severe in a different jurisdiction.

Prosecution for a criminal act would typically involve the federal or state authorities deciding whether or not to punish a person found to have committed a crime under the criminal code. The criminal charge in question would fall into one of two categories:

Misdemeanor Crimes

A misdemeanor is a minor offense. It is not considered that serious. Most states classify misdemeanors by letters (typically A-C) from the least to most severe. Punishment for these criminal cases may include jail time, loss of privileges, or fines.

Some states don’t have categories of misdemeanors. Instead, penalties are assigned on a case-by-case basis. Common misdemeanor crimes include disorderly conduct, petty drug crimes, trespassing, public intoxication, and parking tickets.

Felony Crimes

A felony is the most severe criminal offense. Punishment for these crimes is equally harsh and may include short-term to long-term imprisonment, life imprisonment, or death. Most states classify felonies by letters (typically A-F) from least to most severe.

The classifications of felony crimes vary by state, as do their respective penalties. Common examples of felonies include selling or manufacturing illicit drugs, arson, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and murder.

criminal law car
What Is Criminal Law?

What Is Civil Law?

Civil law is an umbrella term that refers to all fields of non-criminal law. Civil proceedings involve property and money-related disputes between private entities and private citizens.

Civil law encompasses individual interests (such as contractual interests) and rights that may have been violated by another person or entity, in which case, filing a civil lawsuit would be warranted. The participants in a civil law case are referred to as the “parties.”

There are four main fields in the civil law system:

  • Contract law: Involves the enforcement and interpretation of agreements between groups, businesses, or people related to the exchange of property, goods, services, or money.
  • Property law: Involves the governance of various forms of ownership related to real property (land) and personal property.
  • Family law: Involves matters related to family relationships, including emancipation, paternity, adoption, divorce, child custody, and so forth.
  • Tort law: Involves laws that protect and compensate individuals who have sustained injuries due to wrongdoers’ negligent or reckless actions.

It is worth noting that some of these fields may intersect depending on the modalities of the civil case in question.

civil law books
What Is Civil Law?

Burden of Proof in Civil and Criminal Cases

One notable difference between civil and criminal litigation and law in Texas is the concept of Burden of Proof. The Burden of Proof refers to a legal standard that relies on the evidence produced in a case to determine if a legal claim is valid or invalid.

Burden-of-Proof standards are used in both criminal and civil proceedings. The difference lies in the way they are used. Here’s how.

In criminal court proceedings, the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor. They must show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the accused person committed the crime they’ve been charged with.

On the other hand, in civil proceedings, the burden of proof isn’t as weighty. To prove their case, a civil attorney must cite a “Preponderance of Evidence” to gain a favorable judgment for their client. In most civil lawsuits, the plaintiff must demonstrate to the jury or the judge that the defendant is responsible for more than 50% of their losses and suffering.

Alternatively, they could prove their case by citing “clear and convincing standards” to gain a favorable outcome. This involves suing the defendant for something intangible (such as job discrimination) and requires a higher standard than the Preponderance of Evidence.

This lower burden-of-proof standard gives civil cases flexibility in how they’re resolved. If the Preponderance of Evidence is clear, the civil defense attorney may propose an out-of-court settlement to the plaintiff’s attorney. That way, they can avoid the time and associated cost of a trial.

The corresponding strategy in criminal proceedings is a plea bargain settlement. Unlike out-of-court civil settlements, the court must approve the plea bargain settlement. Upon the defendant’s approval, the criminal defense attorney can propose a lesser charge or punishment for their client. In return, the defendant pleads guilty before the conclusion of the trial.

Do Civil Law and Criminal Law Intersect?

Although civil law and criminal law are designed to address different forms of wrongdoing, they share some similarities. They even intersect from time to time.

In criminal law, offenses are considered crimes against the state. However, some cases may have both criminal and civil trials.

For instance, in our earlier road rage example at the beginning of this post, you (the victim) can sue the errant driver for civil damages resulting from their brake-checking crime. This would be in addition to the criminal charges they would face against the state for violating the Texas Transportation Code.

There have also been instances where cases concluded in criminal courts (such as arson, aggravated assault, and murder) are assigned to civil litigators to pursue compensation for individual human rights violations. The most interesting ones usually challenge the sentence on constitutional grounds.

That said, the outcomes of civil and criminal proceedings are not mutually exclusive. An individual charged with a crime can be found not guilty and walk and yet still be liable for the same conduct in a civil trial.

civil law lawsuit
Do Civil Law and Criminal Law Intersect?

Civil Law vs. Criminal Law Examples

Civil law and criminal law are two different types of law with different definitions and purposes. Civil law deals with the resolution of disputes between individuals, businesses, and even the government. Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with punishing individuals who have committed a crime. Here are some examples of civil law vs. criminal law.

Civil Law Examples:

  • Custody dispute: A disagreement between a child’s parents regarding access to the child and the legal right to keep and look after them.
  • Bankruptcy: Refers to legal proceedings initiated when an individual or business cannot settle outstanding financial obligations or debts.
  • Defamation: Refers to the malicious communication of false statements about an individual to a third party resulting in injuries to their reputation.
  • Breach of contract: This occurs when one of the parties to a legally binding agreement fails to honor and fulfill its terms.
  • Property damage: Refers to real injury to personal property resulting from an act of nature, willful destruction, or another person’s negligence.

Criminal Law Examples:

  • Homicide: A broad term that refers to one person killing another.
    • Murder: A homicide involving knowledge, desire, and intention to kill another person.
    • Manslaughter: A homicide that involves the unintentional killing of another person.
  • Conspiracy: Refers to an agreement between multiple people with the intent to commit a crime.
  • Obstruction of justice: Criminal obstruction involves engaging in activity that interferes with the investigation or prosecution of an offense.
  • Assault: An intentional act involving physical force that places another individual in reasonable fear of imminent harm.
  • Cybercrime: Cybercrime is any type of crime that involves a computer or other digital device. Examples of cybercrime include identity theft, phishing scams, hacking, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying.
  • Possession of a controlled substance: Involves an individual knowingly and intentionally having unauthorized possession of a drug that state or federal law has declared illegal for use or sale without a prescription from a physician.
  • Driving while intoxicated (DWI): Involves driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or higher or driving after consuming a controlled substance that impairs the driver’s physical and mental faculties.
Video: Civil Law vs. Criminal Law

Conclusion: Civil Law vs. Criminal Law

There is a big difference between civil law and criminal law, and it is important to understand the distinction. Civil law deals with disputes between individuals, businesses, or other organizations, while criminal law deals with behavior that is considered to be a crime.

In general, civil law is less serious than criminal law, and the penalties are not as severe. However, both types of law are important, and both can have a major impact on your life.

Once you understand the nuances of the legal system, you’ll be able to identify the route to take when seeking justice and compensation for harm and other grievances.

Turn To Trevino Injury Law For All Your Civil Law Matters

Trevino Injury Law is full service San Antonio personal injury law firm committed to seeking justice and maximizing your injury claim. Our team of San Antonio injury lawyers can help with:

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