In the United States, the purpose of both criminal and civil law is to punish serious wrongdoings but the way the different courts punish those found guilty in them are different.  They also differ in the way charges are initiated, who files suit, how cases are decided, the kinds of penalties that can be imposed, the standards of proof that must be met, and the legal protections that are available to defendants.

There are many offenses that can be tried in both a criminal court as well as in a civil court. An individual or entity can be tried for the same offence in both a criminal court and a civil court.

A common example of an offence that can be tried in both courts is driving while under the influence (DUI). A DUI is a criminal charge that can result in jail time and other criminal punishments. If someone is injured by someone who was driving while under the influence, the victim may file a civil claim seeking monetary compensation against the driver. The outcome of the two cases should not have any bearing on one another. For example, a person may be found innocent in their criminal trial but be found guilty in their civil lawsuit or vice versa, or they may be found guilty or innocent in both cases.

Criminal Law

Criminal law deals with behavior that is an offense against the state, society or any member of the public. In criminal law, the term state does not mean that someone attacked a state building or state government official. A crime against the state means that someone broke a law of the government. This can be a law of the federal, a state, or a local government.


When someone is charged with a crime, it is always the government who makes the charge. A criminal charge can come from an entity of a federal, state or local government.


When someone is accused of a crime, they are the defendant and the state is the prosecutor.  A prosecutor or district attorney pleads the state’s case and a criminaldefense lawyer is the kind of lawyer that defends the accused. When a defendant cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the state will assign a public defender to the defendant and will pay for the public defender’s fees. The outcome of a criminal trial is typically decided by the judge presiding over the case.


When someone is convicted of a crime, their punishment typically involves Incarceration. Other punishments include but are not limited to, fines, loss of professional and other licenses, loss of security clearances, the offense being made a part of the convicted person’s permanent, criminal record.


Civil law deals with claims that are filed against one private party from another private party. In civil law, a private party can be a public entity such as a utility company or law enforcement. It can also be a party you know such as a friend, neighbor, employer, or doctor; or it can be a party you have never met and know only by name such as a company, manufacturer or organization.


When a party accuses another party of a wrongdoing via a civil court system, it is called a claim. Very often, the area of law that governs the claim precedes the word claim, such as in a personal injury claim, medical malpractice claim or workers compensation claim. The party making the claim is the plaintiff, and the accused is the defendant.


Claims tried in civil courts can typically be tried in front of a judge who decides the outcome of the case; or in front of a jury and a judge where, under the guidance of the presiding judge the jury decides the outcome of the case. The plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases are not required to have lawyers represent them and they are typically hired by plaintiffs and defendants. Many civil claims settle before they reach trial. 


Civil claims typically seek a monetary award from the defendant where the money is considered to be making up for the damages the plaintiff suffered because of the defendant.