Civil cases generally involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole. Below is a comparison of the chief differences between both types of cases.
A civil case begins when a person or entity (such as a corporation or the government), called the plaintiff, accuses another person or entity (the defendant) of having failed to carry out a legal duty owed to him. Both the plaintiff and the defendant are also referred to as “parties” or “litigants.” The plaintiff may request the court to order the defendant to satisfy the duty, or make compensation for the harm done, or both. Legal duties are predicated upon legal rights that have been established under the U.S. Constitution or under federal or state laws and which must be respected.
Civil suits can be brought in both state and federal courts. An example of a civil case brought in state court is that of an individual who sues another individual for not living up to his obligations under a legally enforceable contract. This type of dispute is referred to as a “breach of contract.”
A person accused of a crime is usually charged in a formal accusation called an indictment (for felonies or serious crimes) or a complaint (for disorderly persons offenses). The government, on behalf of the people of the United States, prosecutes the case through the United States Attorney’s Office if the person is charged with a federal crime. A state’s attorney general’s office or a county prosecutor’s office prosecutes state crimes.
The victim is not responsible for bringing a criminal case. He or she normally gives a statement and/or signs a complaint against the accused but at the end of the day is not a party to the action. Instead, it is the government that prosecutes the accused.
In some criminal cases, there is no victim. For example, state governments routinely arrest and prosecute individuals accused of driving while intoxicated or possessing a controlled dangerous substance because society regards this as insidious conduct that can result in harm to the general welfare of others.
When a person is found guilty or pleads guilty to committing a crime, that person will receive a sentence. The sentence may be an order to pay a monetary penalty (a fine and/or restitution to the victim), imprisonment, or supervision in the community by a probation officer, or some combination of these three things.