Written by attorney Luke Joseph Nichols

Civil Law vs. Criminal Law

I get a lot of questions from people who have been hurt or wronged by someone and they want to know what they can do about. Most the time, before I can answer them I have to explain to them the difference between "civil law" and "criminal law".

In civil and criminal law there are two parties: The plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff is the one asking the court to do something and the defendant is the one trying to prevent the court from doing what the plaintiff wants.

In the vast volumes of laws in our country there are two types. Criminal laws and Civil laws. Criminal laws are enforced by law enforcement and prosecutors. Criminal laws have punishments. Civil laws are enforced by citizens, buisnesses, and governments but not prosecutors or police. Civil laws can be used to punish a person but the vast majority of the times civil laws are designed to fix something rather than punish a person.

For example: If you punch me in the face and break my nose. You can be arrested and convicted for violating the criminal law (i.e. Assault and battery). You would be sentenced to jail and pay a fine which goes to the government. The judge may also decided that you have to pay for my medical expenses and may also order a protective order preventing you from ever coming near me again.

However, if you punch me in face I can also choose to sue you in civil court for violating the civil laws. If I win then the court could order you to pay me money to repair my nose or compensate me for my pain and suffering. The civil court could also grant me a protective order and prevent you from coming near me ever again. So you see there are two solution to the same problem: one civil and one criminal.

As you can see from this example, if you have been wronged udner both criminal and civil law you can decided to pursue rememdies under one or both types of law. Each type of law has its strengths and weaknesses. If you call the police to arrest a person for violation of criminal laws then you don't have to hire an attorney. The government takes care of all the prosecution. The wrong doer gets put in jail and actually punished. and you may even get a protective order or some limited payments for medical expenses. However, the problem with criminal law is that you have no control over the process. You cannot decide to "drop the charges", its completely up to the prosecutor. Also the courts may not decided to or even be able to demand payments for medical expenses, and in Virginia they will not order the defendant to pay for "pain and suffering". Also, to win a criminal case takes more evidence than it does to win a civil case (think about OJ simpson: he won the criminal case and lost the civil case).

However, in civil court, you can get alot more money, so you may actually be compensated for your suffering as opposed to criminal court where it is hard to gat even a little money sometimes. Also, you have complete controll over the law suit. You can drop it at any time you want and ask for what ever you want as long as you have a real arguement. Civil suits are also easier to win than criminal cases. The down side, is that you have to pay for your own attorney and usually civil suits take more time than criminal suits.

So based on this, if you have been wronged, think about what you want, is it money? then you should sue. If you want to see the person arrested and off the streets then you should call the police. And if you want both...well you can do that too.

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