Civil Offense vs. Crime: Knowing The Difference

Published 12:54 pm Saturday, May 7, 2022

Sponsored content

For regular citizens, the law can sometimes seem like a complex maze. But, one might run into legal issues at any time, so it’s crucial to have at least a basic understanding of how things work.

Civil offenses and criminal offenses are two different things handled differently by the law. Generally speaking, a crime is considered an offense against the state (even though the harm is directly inflicted on an individual). On the other hand, civil cases are often disagreements between two parties involving a legal issue. For instance, you might sue someone for breaching a contract or causing you financial loss due to their actions. 

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Examples of criminal cases include:

  • Robbery
  • Murder
  • Arson
  • Violence
  • Discrimination 
  • Vehicle theft
  • Sexual assault 

Examples of civil cases include:

  • A person who is hurt in a car accident suing the other driver
  • Someone suing another individual for defaming them or their company
  • A customer suing a client or vendor for not supplying the agreed amount or quality of goods. 

When suing someone for a civil offense, you can’t and shouldn’t call them a criminal. 

Key differences between a criminal case and a civil case

The following are key distinctions between criminal and civil offenses:

The accuser

Crimes are offenses against the state. So when someone robs a bank or murders a person, the state is the plaintiff responsible for filing the case. That’s why you see things like “The State vs. John Smith.” The person will be arrested. 

For civil offenses, the wronged party would be the person to file the case. There’ll be  nothing like an arrest. 

Standard of proof

Because criminal cases incur more severe punishments, they are typically harder to prove than civil cases. A crime must be proven beyond every reasonable doubt for the defendant to be convicted of the offense. In civil cases, you only need to prove that it was more likely that the defendant’s actions led to your harm. For instance, proving that your car accident injury was because the other driver didn’t act properly.

The right to an attorney

In criminal cases, the state will provide you with a lawyer to defend you if you can’t afford one. However, it is always better to hire your own criminal defense attorney since you get the opportunity to choose the best. In civil lawsuits, you would have to defend yourself against your accuser if you can’t hire a lawyer.

Type of punishment

In civil cases, the offender’s punishment usually involves paying money as compensation to the accuser.

In criminal cases, the offender may pay a fine to the state or go to jail.

Where the line becomes thin

Regardless of the differences, a civil wrong may also be considered a criminal offense depending on the consequences. In the case of OJ Simpson, he was accused of murder (criminal offense) and wrongful death (a civil offense). However, the available evidence only allowed the jury to conclude that he wrongfully caused his wife’s death. In the criminal proceeding, they could not absolutely prove that he murdered his wife. 

Both cases must be judged separately, even when the conduct is the same.

Steps to take when charged with a criminal offense

A criminal charge is a big deal, so you must know and follow the steps below:

1. Exercise your right to remain silent

You’ve always heard this in movies, and it’s one of the best things you can do. The moment you are charged, you will be arrested by the police. Do not resist or say anything, as your own words may further incriminate you. Even when in custody, refuse to answer any question and insist that you can only speak in the presence of a lawyer. Refrain from acting hostile, even though you just want to scream, “I am innocent!”

2. Contact an attorney

The state may provide you with an attorney if you can’t afford one, but as mentioned, you’re better off choosing one you consider the best. Having a reputable criminal defense attorney at your service is the most crucial step you can take as soon as you’re charged with a crime and taken into custody. It’s critical that you be 100% honest with your attorney so they are presented with all the facts. Note that they are bound not to reveal whatever you discuss publicly.

3. Do not post bail without an attorney

If you or your loved one has been arrested, resist the urge to post bail without first contacting a lawyer. They might suggest if posting bail would be the right step or help you reduce the amount.

Further things to note

  • Try to write down everything you remember for clarity’s sake
  • Please do not discuss the arrest with family or friends are they are not bound with the same confidentiality as your attorney
  • Make a list of witnesses that may help your case

Final words

A civil lawsuit may incur only financial damage, but a criminal charge can destroy one’s life and reputation, whether or not they are, in fact, guilty. So it’s crucial you immediately get yourself an attorney you can trust.