When a crime is committed, there are a number of factors that will affect how the case is dealt with including who deals with it, where it is dealt with and how the case should be resolved.
Most cases will either be criminal or civil, although on rarer occasions, a case can be both criminal and civil.
To understand how, it helps to understand the difference between the two. This article breaks down the differences between both cases and how a crossover can come about.
What is a civil case vs criminal?
The biggest difference between them is how they are resolved. A civil case will involve a lawsuit that focuses on compensating a victim or a victim’s family for damage done, usually in the form of money.
In a criminal case, criminal charges are punishable in the form of prison time and fines etc. although it is not as simple as that.
A civil case will typically involve a private dispute between organizations or individuals whereas a criminal case will involve a person or organization that has done something thought to be harmful to society as a whole.
While these cases are very different, there is sometimes the possibility for crossover.
A civil case comes about when a person or organization (the plaintiff) claims that another person or organization (the defendant) has not followed through with their legal duty as owed to the plaintiff.
For example, if a citizen or corporation sued another citizen or corporation for not holding up their end of a contract.
In order to resolve the case, the plaintiff may ask the court to order the defendant to fulfill this duty or be forced to compensate the plaintiff, typically in the form of money, for the harm done. In some instances the court will even order both.
Civil lawsuits can be brought in state (common law courts) and federal courts (courts of limited jurisdiction).
The majority of cases will be heard in state courts because they tend to cover cases that mainly only affect that local area, whereas federal courts will hear more cases of national importance.
A criminal case is often more complicated. These cases will come about when the police are notified about a crime that has been committed or observed.
This could be anything from a speeding offense to murder, basically any activity that is illegal and antisocial in nature. The crime could be committed against the state as well as an individual.
The accused will be arrested and given the right to request a lawyer or contact a lawyer of their choosing.
What follows will typically involve an investigation that requires the gathering of evidence and the questioning of witnesses etc. and will either result in charging the accused or releasing them.
Once charged, their case may be referred to the Crown Attorney’s Office and a decision will be made on how to proceed with the case.
The case will either proceed by summary proceedings or indictable proceedings, or it may be dropped altogether. Summary proceedings carry less extreme penalties.
In order to resolve the case, the accused will decide with their lawyer whether they should take the case to trial or consider a plea bargain.
If they go to trial and found guitly, there will be a sentancing hearing that will decide their punishment which can include prison time.
When a person is accused of a crime, they will typically be charged in a ‘formal accusation’ called an idictment or information. Idictments are for serious crimes or ‘felonies’ whereas an information is a formal criminal charge for misdemeanors.
If a person is charged with a federal crime (a crime of national importance), the case will go through the United States Attorney’s Office. If a person is charged with a state crime, they will be prosecuted through the District Attorney’s Office.
Can a case be both criminal and civil?
A person can of course, break a criminal law and commit a legal wrongdoing against a private person or organization with the same crime.
So, as explained above, a civil case will involve a dispute between private parties whereas a criminal case is any activity considered to be against the state or federal government etc.
However, it is possible for an act to result in both civil claims and criminal charges. This is because some cases can result in a civil penalty that could be supplemented by criminal charges.
For example, if a person has done a legal wrongdoing against someone else, they will need to bring a civil claim in order to receive compensation but, depending on the crime, there’s also the possibility that criminal charges may result as well.
So, if someone is assaulted, they may recieve compensation from the accused and the accused may also be arrested and charged with the crime of assault.
It’s important to note though, that if a civil case can also bring about criminal charges it cannot simply turn into a criminal case, a new criminal case must begin in order for a party to face criminal charges. But, a crime can certainly be both civil and criminal.
Can you be imprisoned for a civil offense?
If charged with a civil offense, you will likely receive a civil penalty or civil fine. This will be imposed by a government agency as a way of compensating for the wrongdoing.
This is not the same as a criminal punishment because rather than punishing the person for the offense, it compensates the person or organization for the harm done to it.
A civil offense will not typically result in jail time because they tend to be resolved by money damages or injunctions etc. that being said, a judge in a civil case can order jail time for disobeying a court order or for contempt.
There are times when a civil case can bring about criminal charges which could involve prison time such as the assault example mentioned above.