Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

Every legal case in the United States falls under one of two classifications: civil or criminal. Generally, civil cases are simply disputes of varying severity between individuals whereas criminal cases involve offenses against the state or federal government. In some situations, a civil action may run in tandem with criminal charges against the same defendant for his or her actions. It’s important to understand the differences between these two types of cases as well as the common threads between them.

Important Differences Between Civil and Criminal Cases

A civil case typically involves one person or party’s actions that negatively impact another person or party. This could include personal injuries, premises liability issues, product liability claims, and many other possibilities. A criminal case involves actions that the state recognizes as crimes against society as a whole. For example, a murder may technically only affect the victim, but the state will consider it an offense to all members of society.

Unlike civil actions filed by individual plaintiffs with direct involvement in the events in question, a prosecutor files criminal charges and pursues a case against a defendant as a representative of the state. In civil actions, the plaintiff files the lawsuit for compensation for his or her personal losses and damages.


Criminal and civil offenses also vary in both severity and punishment. For example, a negligent driver may strike and injure a pedestrian with no intention of doing so. The injured pedestrian would more than likely succeed in a lawsuit by proving the defendant was negligent while driving, and the defendant would have to pay restitution to the plaintiff. In some cases, negligent defendants may face criminal charges, but this usually only applies to repeat offenders or grossly negligent or reckless behavior, such as driving under the influence. The defendant may not have had any intent to injure someone, but did so due to failing to pay attention to the road and acting recklessly. If a person uses a vehicle to deliberately injure or kill another person, the law considers his or her harmful intent a crime against society, and thus a definite criminal action.


Defendants in criminal cases also have the right to a trial by jury. A jury is a selection of individuals considered to be the defendant’s peers, and the court presents evidence of the case for the jury to determine a verdict. Civil actions may involve a jury in some cases. Typically, only a judge will preside over a civil case.

Constitutional Rights

Finally, Constitutional rights apply differently in civil and criminal cases. A defendant in a criminal case has the right to an attorney. If he or she cannot afford one, the state must provide a public defender. In civil cases, defendants must retain and pay for their own legal representation or represent themselves. Additionally, protections against illegal searches and seizures and other protections only apply to criminal defendants, and do not apply to defendants in civil cases.

Facing Both Civil and Criminal Liability

It’s important to realize that a defendant may face both civil and criminal penalties for the same conduct. In some situations, a jury may not find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for the criminal charges, but the civil action may still find them guilty of the civil charges by a preponderance of the evidence of the case.

If you find yourself facing civil charges, or need to file a civil action against someone else, speak with an attorney as soon as possible about your situation. If you face criminal charges, you have to have an attorney unless you completely waive your right to representation. If you can afford an attorney, you may find they can provide more robust representation than a public defender. Public defenders typically manage several cases at once and may not be able to provide the same degree of attention to your case, but a public defender is almost always preferable to attempting to represent yourself in a criminal case.