The two different bodies of law in the United States that try to hold people accountable for their wrongdoings are criminal or civil. Criminal law seeks to deter or punish serious wrongdoings while civil law focuses on compensating victims who have been wronged.


Civil and criminal law differ in regards to who initiates a case and how this is done, the kinds of punishment or penalties that may be imposed, what standards of proof must be met and the legal protections that are made available to a defendant.



Criminal and civil charges are separate from each other. The same crime can be prosecuted in a criminal trial, typically by a state or the federal government, as well as in a civil case brought about by individuals who were injured by the person’s crime. These injuries can be, but do not need to be physical injuries for a victim to make a claim against the perpetrator.


One example of a crime that can cause non-physical injuries, is intellectual property infringement. Typically, intellectual property offenses are treated as civil offenses unless state and/or federal laws are infringed upon. Depending on the circumstances, infringement of copyright, counterfeiting labels of copyrighted creations, theft of trade secrets and counterfeiting trademarks, may be subject to both criminal and civil charges. In a civil suit, the plaintiff (the victim of the crime) can try to recoup losses or seek compensation for ill-gotten gains. A criminal conviction can result in jail time, fines, and other punishments, as well as in some circumstances, punitive damages.


Civil Law

Civil law is the system of law that deals with private relations between members of a community rather than criminal, military or religious affairs. It deals with behavior that constitutes an injury to an individual or other private party. The injury can be physical, such as injuries that occur in a car accident or from medical malpractice and it can also deal with a non-physical injury.  Examples of non-physical injuries include defamation, breach of contract, and infringement of copyright. Civil law also deals with property damage.


Civil cases are initiated by a private party that has suffered injury and who is referred to as, the plaintiff. Civil claims can be settled before they get to court but if they are not, they are decided by either a judge or a jury. Punishment in civil cases does not include criminal punishment such as imprisonment or having a professional license revoked. Typical awards in civil cases include money and returning property.

Criminal Law

Criminal cases can only be initiated by the federal or state government, where an agent of the government prosecutes the defendant on behalf of the government. Criminal cases are almost always decided by a jury.


Punishments for criminal convictions often include jail/prison time and fines paid to the government.


To get a defendant convicted in a criminal case, the prosecution needs to establish the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal defendants are supposed to be protected from police and prosecutor conduct that violates their constitutional rights, including their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures as well as the Fifth Amendment’s right against compelled self-incrimination.