Civil Law and Criminal Law – what’s the difference?

     Protecting citizens from harmful acts is basic to an orderly society.  To protect citizens, governments pass laws making wrongful acts crimes.  Criminal law generally deals with crimes, whereas civil law generally deals with torts and breaches of contract.  Certain incidents may give rise to a civil proceeding and a criminal proceeding; to begin to comprehend the legal system, first one must know the difference between civil law and criminal law and how the two systems are intertwined and act as a sort of checks and balances against one other.

Crimes & Torts
What’s the Difference?

Crime – a wrongful act that the state or federal government has identified as a crime because it injures or interferes with the interest of society.  Crimes are identified within a publicly-accessible, fixed body of statutes (penal codes, ordinances, building codes, etc.) called laws, which are enforced by officers. 

   A criminal case is a criminal proceeding.  The accused is called a ‘defendant”.  The victim is:

  • the person who has been hurt.
  • the state.
  • other governmental agency (i.e. city, county, federal government, etc.).

     The charges are brought by the government.  If the defendant loses, the defendant must serve a sentence.  A fine is paid to the government and there is possible restitution to the victim.

     Many acts that result in harm to others are not crimes.  Accidentally hitting another car with your own is not a crime, even though it could cause harm.  It is a tort.  

Tort – a wrongful act that injures or interferes with another’s person or property.  A tort can be intentional or unintentional (negligence), or it can be a tort of strict liability.  A tort case is a civil court proceeding.  The accused is the “defendant” and the victim is a “plaintiff.”  The charges are brought by the plaintiff.  If the defendant loses, the defendant has to pay damages to the plaintiff.

Tort cases are heard in Civil Proceedings:

     The legal process is quite different from criminal proceedings. The civil process provides a legal means for victims of harmful acts to be compensated for the harm done to them.

     To win a tort case, the plaintiff must prove two things:

(1) the defendant committed the tort and
(2) as a result of the tort, the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s property was injured.

     If a plaintiff can prove both, s/he is entitled to recover money damages from the defendant to compensate for the injury.  The defendant is liable, which means he is responsible for paying the damages.

Liable – likely to incur a penalty as a result of having commit a civil wrong or breach of contract, answerable by tort.  aka legally liable.

Liability – the quality; state, or condition of being legally obligated or accountable; a debt enforceable by civil remedy or criminal punishment.

The Same Act May be a Crime and a Tort:

     Why are two different legal actions against one wrongful act possible?  In effect, criminal law provides a way of punishing people who commit crimes. It acts to protect all citizens from such wrongdoing.  Criminal law is not concerned with the individual victim. The law of torts, on the other hand, provides a way to compensate victims of wrongful acts.  

     In reality, victims of crimes like burglary, rape, and armed robbery rarely sue the wrongdoers primarily because the wrongdoer has no money or property from which to collect. [1]  However, it is important to note that there are several non-monetary forms of relief that can be requested by a court.

When Laws Cause Torts
or Officers Commit Crimes:

     Laws which which are likely to violate civil rights are a liability against taxpayers; such laws can be challenged & overturned via following the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (see Rule 5.1).

     When an officer violates a civilian’s rights, it is called a Constitutional tort, which is a type of tort

     If the officer violated procedure & commit a crime, it is called a color of law crime.  If the (county, city, state, federal, tribal, etc.) agency did not properly train or vet the officer, the agency can be held accountable via filing a claim (a civil complaintand a criminal complaint (since the act is both civil and criminal).

Civil Law Self-Help

Criminal Law Self-Help


Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is pertinent to people everywhere, and is being utilized in accordance with Fair Use.

[1]:,, “The Difference between Torts and Crimes” by: Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia:


Criminal Proceedings

Intro to Law

Federal Rules of Procedure

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