With so many television shows on right now that use the United States court system as a background, it can be a bit confusing figuring out the difference between civil law and criminal law. Let’s take a look at just a few of the main differences between the civil law system and the criminal law system in the United States.
First off, if you are headed to court for criminal law, that means that a law (state or federal) has been broken. In civil law, no laws have been broken but your rights as a citizen of your state or of the United States has been infringed upon. For example, if you feel that you were sexually harassed at work, then you would file a civil lawsuit since there are no federal or state laws that expressly forbid something like sexual harassment, although it is definitely something you can sue for.
Another major difference between civil and criminal law is economic rewards. In a criminal case, you seldom see a judge or a jury reward monetary rewards because a law was broken since the violation didn’t come against a person, it came against a law, but in civil court, a judge can award cash settlements as part of the punishment since a civil trial will look at a wrong done between one person to another. The same crime, say, manslaughter, can have two trials, a civil one that looks at the personal damage done by one person to another and a criminal trial that looks at the laws broken by the act. Some people mistakenly view this as a violation of the double jeopardy law, but that law only comes into affect if criminal proceedings are tried twice for the same crime.
One final major difference between civil and criminal law is the burden of proof. In the case of criminal law, the burden of proof is always on the state or on the federal government that is prosecuting the case. That means that the person being accused of a crime never has to prove they didn’t do it, they simply have to prove that the case presented by the prosecution is faulty. In civil court, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff in most cases. They must prove that they have been wronged and that the defendant is responsible.
So how do you know if you have been a victim of a civil violation or a criminal crime? Most people who are confused about what has just happened to them do one of two things: they call a lawyer or they call the police. In both cases, the person you call will inform you if you should call the other. The system works to help protect people’s rights, and although the police and lawyers may appear to have an adversarial relationship on television, they are both important parts of the United States system of law that is used to protect each and every one of its citizens.