Distinctions between civil law and criminal law in the US

criminal law in the US

The US legal system generally divides laws into two main categories: civil and criminal law. While both forms of law are essential to the administration of justice, they serve different purposes and have distinct procedures and potential outcomes. Civil law pertains to the rules and regulations that dictate how individuals, companies, and other entities interact with each other. It primarily concerns private disputes, and its main objective is to resolve these conflicts, often through compensation or specific performances rather than punitive measures. Criminal law, on the other hand, encompasses the rules and statutes that define conduct that is prohibited by the government, mainly because it threatens and harms public safety and welfare. The primary intent of criminal law is to achieve justice, deter unlawful behavior, and maintain the rule of law.

Foundational knowledge

Understanding the differences between these two types of law is fundamental for anyone who wishes to grasp the foundations of the American legal system. Civil and criminal law encompass vast areas of potential practice hence knowledge of these fields helps students make informed decisions about their career paths. But first, students need to pass the LSAT to join law school. Students interested in law can take advantage of these LSAT reading comprehension tips to get in. Law students often decide their specialty based on their exposure to various fields in law school. Luckily, many institutions such as Cleveland State University have online law programs that offer detailed foundational concepts and skills to prepare students for advanced and specialized coursework.

This article covers a breakdown of civil and criminal law and the differences between them, which is essential knowledge for anyone looking to pass the LSAT.

Branches of civil law

Several branches exist within the realm of civil law. These branches are designed to address specific types of disputes. Here is a closer look at some of the most prominent.

Tort law

This branch deals with wrongful acts, either intentional or due to negligence, that cause harm to individuals. There are intentional torts that involve deliberate actions that cause harm. Examples include assault, battery, false imprisonment, trespass, and defamation. Then there is negligence, perhaps the most common type of tort. Negligence arises when someone fails to exercise a level of care that a reasonable person would in the same circumstances, leading to harm. Car accidents due to reckless driving or medical malpractice cases often fall under this category. Lastly, there is strict liability, when a person can be held liable regardless of intent or negligence. This is especially common in cases involving inherently dangerous activities or products.

Tort law plays a crucial role in the US legal system by providing a mechanism for individuals to seek redress for harm caused by others. It serves to both compensate victims and deter individuals and entities from committing harmful actions.

Contract law

This involves mutual agreements made between parties. One party proposes an offer, and the other party agrees to the terms set out in the offer. The contract’s subject matter must be legal. For example, a contract for illegal drug sales is inherently unenforceable because its subject matter is prohibited by law. When one party fails to uphold their end of an agreement, the other may seek legal remedy. This branch ensures that contracts are honored and provides a framework for interpretation and enforcement.

Property law

This governs ownership rights and interests in personal and real property. Personal property pertains to movable property, which includes both tangible items like cars, jewelry, and furniture, as well as intangible items like intellectual property (copyrights, patents, and trademarks) and certain financial instruments. Real property covers fixed properties, mainly land and the structures attached to it (e.g., houses and buildings). It covers aspects like ownership rights, land use, rental, and property development. It encompasses a range of matters, from buying and selling property to ownership and possession, landlord-tenant disputes, trespass, zoning and land use, and adverse possession.

Family law

Family law is a multifaceted area of the legal system, addressing sensitive and deeply personal issues. Its main aim is to provide a structured and fair framework for resolving disputes and ensuring the wellbeing of all family members, especially children. Family law deals with issues related to family relationships, such as divorce, marriage, child custody/support, adoption, domestic violence, surrogacy, and more. Given the emotional nature of many family law issues, individuals often seek the guidance of legal professionals to navigate these complex matters.

Probate and estate law

This provides a structured process for managing and distributing a person’s assets after their death. It seeks to honor the wishes of the deceased, protect the rights of beneficiaries and creditors, and ensure a lawful and orderly transition of assets. Given its complexity and the emotions often involved, many individuals seek legal counsel to guide them through estate planning or the probate process. It covers wills, intestate, trust, guardianship, beneficiary, estate litigation, and more.

Intellectual property law

This branch covers creations such as inventions, literary and artistic works, symbols, and names. It includes patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets, ensuring creators and innovators are rewarded for their contributions. Intellectual property (IP) laws vary from one jurisdiction to another, in the nature of the rights they confer and how those rights are enforced. International treaties, like the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), seek to harmonize some aspects of IP law across countries.

Employment and labor law

This law primarily focuses on the relationship between employers and individual employees. It encompasses issues such as hiring, employment contracts, wrongful termination, discrimination, and workplace safety. Labor law also deals with the relationship between employers and collective groups of workers or unions. It touches upon collective bargaining, union organization rights, and labor disputes.

Features of US criminal law

The US criminal law system is complicated, but there are numerous key features that stand out as being both significant and deeply ingrained in American society.

Dual sovereignty

In the US, both the federal government and state governments have the power to prosecute criminal offenses. This means an individual can be prosecuted at the federal and state levels for the same act without violating the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution.

Presumption of innocence

Every accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This principle requires the prosecution to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal cases.

Right to a fair trial

The Sixth Amendment ensures that anyone accused of a crime has the right to a speedy trial, an impartial jury, and legal representation.


Once a person is found guilty, penalties can range from fines to imprisonment, or even the death penalty in certain states for heinous crimes.

Mens rea and actus reus

Mens rea and actus reus are two foundational principles in criminal law that help determine an individual’s guilt or innocence. Both concepts originate from Latin terms: ‘mens rea’ translates to ‘guilty mind,’ and ‘actus reus’ means ‘guilty act.’ In simple terms, for most crimes, the prosecution must prove not only that the defendant committed the act (actus reus) but also that they had a culpable state of mind (mens rea) when doing so.

Ex post facto laws

In the US, ex post facto laws are explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. Both Article I, Section 9 (for the federal government) and Article I, Section 10 (for the states) prohibit the passing of ex post facto laws. The Framers of the Constitution included these provisions to ensure fairness and justice, recognizing that it would be inherently unjust to hold individuals accountable to laws that did not exist at the time of their actions.

Key acts under criminal law

Under criminal law, there are numerous key acts that students should be familiar with before taking the LSAT.

The United States Code (USC)

This is the codification of general and permanent federal statutes. Title 18 of the USC pertains to federal crimes and criminal procedure. It details a myriad of federal crimes. These range from relatively minor offenses to serious crimes such as using explosives and firearms, immigration, kidnapping, narcotics, organized crime, public health or sexual exploitation, terrorism, and many more.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act

Enacted in 1970, this act allows for the prosecution of individuals who engage in organized crime activities. The main objective was to combat organized crime in the US by targeting the economic foundations of criminal enterprises. Over time, its application expanded to various types of illegal conduct, even outside the context of traditional organized crime.


Passed after the events of September 11, 2001, this legislation expanded the powers of law enforcement agencies in the realm of anti-terrorism and surveillance. While it introduced tools deemed necessary by many for the protection of the nation, it has also sparked significant debate over the balance between security and civil liberties.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement act of 1994

This was the largest crime bill in US history and contained numerous provisions addressing various aspects of crime and law enforcement. This act provided funding for tens of thousands of community police officers and established new rules and penalties for various crimes.

State penal codes

Every state has its own set of criminal laws, procedures, and penalties, which can vary widely. For example, while marijuana use might be legal in one state, it could be illegal in another.

Key differences between civil and criminal law

With an understanding of both civil and criminal law, here are the key differences between the two.


Civil law is mainly focused on resolving disputes between individuals or entities and, where appropriate, awarding compensation to the injured party. The purpose of civil law is to protect individuals’ rights, including property rights, personal rights (like privacy or reputation), and contractual rights.

Criminal law addresses actions that are deemed harmful to society at large and to deter and punish such actions. The purpose is primarily to maintain societal order, protect individuals and society, and deter potential offenders from committing crimes.

Parties involved

In civil law, there is a plaintiff; the individual or entity that initiates the lawsuit. This party believes they have been wronged and seeks redress. The defendant is the individual or entity being sued.

In criminal law cases, the prosecution represents the state or federal government and brings charges against the accused. Prosecutors can be called district attorneys, state attorneys, or US attorneys, depending on the jurisdiction. The defendant in this case is the individual accused of committing the crime. In many criminal cases, especially serious ones, a jury determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant based on the evidence presented. However, not all criminal cases involve a jury; some are decided by a judge alone in what is called a bench trial. Many civil cases are resolved without a jury or settled before reaching trial.

Burden of proof

In civil law, the standard is ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ meaning the jury or judge must find that it is more likely than not that the plaintiff’s claim is true. The plaintiff must prove their case only to the extent that there’s a chance greater than 50% that their claim is valid. Some civil matters, because of their seriousness or consequences, require a higher standard. ‘Clear and convincing’ means that the evidence presented by a party during the trial must be highly and substantially more probable to be true than not. This standard is often used in cases such as disputes over wills (where there might be allegations of undue influence or fraud) or in cases involving punitive damages.

In criminal law, the standard is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ a much higher standard than in civil cases. The prosecution has the burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that after considering all the evidence, there’s no other reasonable explanation that can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime. It does not mean that all doubt is eliminated, but rather any doubt that does exist is not reasonable.

Potential outcomes

In civil law, the defendant might be required to pay damages or adhere to a court order, like an injunction, monetary damages, or specific performance. Many civil cases are resolved before trial where parties agree to a solution, often involving monetary compensation referred to as a settlement. Also, before or during litigation, parties might engage in negotiation, mediation, or arbitration to resolve their differences outside the traditional court process. The case can also be dismissed if it is found to be without merit, procedural errors are made, or for other reasons.

In criminal law, the consequences can range from fines, community service, restitution, and probation to incarceration in jail or prison. For the most severe crimes, some states have the death penalty. Before trial, the defendant might agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge, often in exchange for a lighter sentence. If the defendant is found not guilty after a trial, they are acquitted, meaning they cannot be tried again for the same crime.

Protections for the accused

Civil law has fewer constitutional protections than criminal law. For example, there is no right to an attorney if the party cannot afford one. The US Constitution offers various rights for the accused in a criminal case, including the right to remain silent, the right to a speedy trial, and the right to an attorney (even if they can’t afford one). In addition, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Double jeopardy

This applies to criminal law. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution states that no person can be tried twice for the same offense. This means if someone is acquitted of a crime, they cannot be retried for that same crime, even if new evidence emerges. With civil law, res judicata is observed, which is similar to ’double jeopardy.’ Once a claim between two parties has been decided by a competent court, the same claim cannot be litigated again between those parties. The purpose of res judicata is to ensure finality in litigation, conserve judicial resources, and protect parties from the burden of litigating the same issue repeatedly.


Both civil and criminal cases can be appealed to higher courts. In civil law, either party can appeal the decision if they believe legal errors affect the outcome. An appellate court can affirm, reverse, or modify the lower court’s decision. However, in criminal cases, the government cannot appeal an acquittal, meaning if a defendant is found not guilty, they cannot be tried again for the same crime.


While both civil and criminal law play integral roles in the US legal system, their differences in purpose, procedures, and potential outcomes are profound. Civil law primarily focuses on resolving disputes and ensuring just compensation, while criminal law seeks to maintain societal order by punishing and deterring wrongful actions. For anyone navigating the legal landscape, understanding these distinctions is crucial.