Civil law or criminal law? The court system in the United States differentiates between the two in a number of ways, from process to punishment. Here we have outlined the major differences between criminal law and civil law.

Criminal Law

The goal of criminal law is to protect the public, typically through punishment and rehabilitation of offenders. These crimes are categorized as either felonies (aggravated assault/battery, homicide, vehicular homicide, manslaughter, rape, burglary, arson, serious drug offenses, etc.) or misdemeanors (petty theft, public intoxication, disorderly conduct, trespassing, vandalism, reckless driving, etc.). Felonies are considered to be graver and more serious than misdemeanors.

  • Parties Involved: Cases are filed by the government or state against a defendant. The government then works with prosecutors to try the crime.
  • Jury: The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right to trial-by-jury for certain criminal cases.
  • Burden of Proof: The state or government must prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty.
  • Verdict: If the case is not settled out of court and instead goes to trial, the defendant will be found guilty or not guilty by jury (in a jury trial) or judge (in a bench trial).
  • Punishment: Depending on the type of crime, guilty parties may receive incarceration and/or fines. Some states allow the death penalty for the most egregious crimes, like murder. Misdemeanors typically receive under 12 months in jail and may instead receive probation, community service, or part-time incarceration.

Civil Law

Civil law revolves around private disputes, whether between individuals, organizations, or both. Civil suits often involve personal property disputes, landlord/tenant disputes, divorce, child custody proceedings or personal injury.

  • Parties Involved: Cases are filed by one private party (the plaintiff) against another (the defendant).
  • Jury: Civil cases may or may not receive a jury trial.
  • Burden of Proof: The plaintiff must prove a “preponderance of evidence”. This basically means they must show that more than half of the evidence points to something in their favor, showing that their case and the facts included are likely to be the truth.
  • Verdict: If the case is not settled out of court and instead goes to trial, the defendant will be found liable or not liable of the damages brought against him/her.
  • Punishment: Typically, if the plaintiff wins the civil case, they will receive compensation by the defendant for injuries, damages or other results of the issue at hand, as determined by a judge.

Many will remember the O.J. Simpson case as an example of both criminal and civil law cases. When Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman in a criminal case, the families of those victims successfully sued Simpson in a wrongful death civil case. In the civil case, Simpson was liable for the murders but not guilty for them, as guilt is only determined in criminal cases.

How to Choose a Lawyer

Lawyers can focus their practice in civil law or criminal law. In addition, the North Carolina State Bar (the organization that governs lawyers in NC) recognizes some lawyers as specialists in certain practice areas if they meet certain qualifications. If you are facing criminal charges, you should reach out to a criminal defense attorney in North Carolina as soon as possible. At Dysart Willis, we have two Board Certified Specialists in Criminal Law: Ryan Willis and Jimmy Wilson. If you are involved in a civil dispute, we also have skilled attorneys who handle a broad range of civil litigation.