Criminal Law vs. Civil Law: Definitions and Differences

  • 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
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

There are two main classifications of law. Criminal laws regulate crimes, or wrongs committed against the government. Civil laws regulate disputes between private parties. This lesson explains the main differences between criminal and civil law.

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

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