There are many things for which we can find ourselves in trouble with the government. While many I do not need to explain, like theft or arson, there are some smaller offenses which will provoke a police response and potentially a penalty, but without the serious implications of a criminal conviction. Surprisingly, civil offenses are in the same class as a civil lawsuit between two parties.
A criminal offense is one which is a violation of a law which can carry jail time. These are generally offenses against another person or society in general, and carry sometimes thousands of dollars in fine and time in jail. Criminal offenses are always between the state (or federal government) and a defendant, however only the defendant can appeal the case if he or she loses. Furthermore, in a jury trial the decision must be unanimous, and the proof of burden is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In other words, the jury has to agree 100% that someone is absolutely guilty or at fault.
A civil offense falls under civil law and can only carry a fine. Even if a person fails to pay their fine, they cannot be imprisoned. Civil offenses are generally relegated to noise or trash ordinances, or traffic penalties (although there are situations in which traffic infractions are crimes, such as extreme speeding or reckless endangerment). Civil cases are very different from civil ones. For example, a civil case can be decided not just for one party or another, but partially one and partially another. Also, the jury does not usually have to be in 100% agreement, and they only have to decide “based on the preponderance of evidence,” or they must determine it is most probable (or “more likely than not”).
This is why in many cases states will try cases in civil court. Especially in complex financial cases, there is less burden of proof and the jury does not have to be as certain. This is an important protection in our legal system, so that only criminals are imprisoned and they are determined beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that they are guilty. Also, any party may appeal a civil case, although this does not determine whether or not it will be heard by the court.
It is important to get representation in any case. Regardless of the strength of your case, you may be caught up by legal complexities which you don’t understand. Particularly if you are facing a heavy financial loss or jail time, contact an attorney if you receive a summons.
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