Civil Law vs. Criminal Law: Know the Difference
Updated: May 25
A criminal case is a court case prosecuted "in the name of the state", where the state accuses someone of a public offense, and the state seeks to impose death, imprisonment, a fine, or disqualification or removal from public office
A civil case is any court case that is not a criminal case.
Many people ask: what is the difference between civil law and criminal law?
A “case” or “action” is a proceeding that one party files in court against another party, to be decided by a judge. In Oklahoma, there are two types of cases that may be filed in court: civil cases and criminal cases. Any case that is not a criminal case, is a civil case.
According to Oklahoma state law, a criminal case is a proceeding prosecuted "in the name of the state", where the state accuses a person of a crime, and the State seeks to impose death, imprisonment, a fine, or disqualification or removal from public office.
Oklahoma law defines “crime” as
“an act or omission forbidden by law, and to which is annexed, upon conviction, one or more of the following punishments:
4. Removal from office; or,
5. Disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit, under this State.”
State law further provides that, no behavior may be deemed a “crime” unless it is specifically listed as a crime in the Oklahoma Statutes.
A criminal action is prosecuted in the name of the state of Oklahoma, as a party. The other party to a criminal case is the defendant. In a civil case, the person filing the suit is the plaintiff, and the other party is the defendant. Usually, the plaintiff in a civil case is a private individual or business; however, the state may also file civil cases.
So, in any given case in the Oklahoma state courts, to find out whether the case is criminal or civil, ask the following questions:
Is the case filed in the name of the state of Oklahoma?
Does the state accuse the other party of behavior that is listed as a crime in the Oklahoma Statutes?
Does the state seek the death penalty, imprisonment, a fine, or removal or disqualification from office?
If the answer to all of the above questions is “Yes” then the case is criminal. If the answer to any of the above questions is “No” then the case is civil.
Examples of criminal cases include: Murder trials, and prosecutions for robbery, domestic violence, and embezzlement. Traffic violations are also criminal, because the state issues a citation, traffic violations are listed as crimes in the Oklahoma Statutes, and the state seeks a fine (or sometimes jail time, if the offense is serious enough.)
Examples of civil cases include: mortgage foreclosures, debt collection, breach of contract, medical malpractice, and automobile accident cases. To see a list of the most common types of civil cases filed in Washington County, click here.
Some behavior can lead to both civil and criminal cases. The most noteworthy example is the case of O.J. Simpson. In the criminal trial, the state of California accused Simpson of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, and the state sought to send Simpson to prison. Because the state prosecuted, and accused Simpson of a crime, and sought to imprison Simpson, the case was criminal. The jury found Simpson not guilty of the criminal charge. Then, Ronald Goldman’s family, and Nicole Simpson’s family, filed a suit against Simpson for wrongful death, and sought money damages from him. Because the families were not the state, they could not seek to send Simpson to prison, and the case was a civil action. In the civil action, the jury found Simpson “liable” for wrongful death, and ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million to Goldman’s family, and $12.5 million to Nicole Simpson’s family.
Other types of incidents that lead to both civil and criminal cases are:
Automobile accidents, where the state charges one party with reckless driving or driving under the influence, and an injured victim sues for personal injuries. The case where the state prosecutes the driver for crimes is a criminal case, and the case where the injured victim sues is a civil case.
White-collar crime cases. The state prosecutes a person for committing financial crimes – this is a criminal case. Those who lost money as a result of the financial misconduct often sue the offender – this is a civil case.
Other differences between civil and criminal cases include:
1. In a criminal case, the court cannot find you guilty unless the state proves “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you are guilty. In a civil case, the standard of proof is different. In most civil cases, the plaintiff must prove his case by a “preponderance of the evidence” – that is, all he needs to prove is that it is “more likely than not” – at least 51% likely – that he is correct.
In some civil cases, the law requires that the plaintiff prove his case by “clear and convincing evidence.” Clear and convincing evidence is difficult to define, but, it requires more proof than a “preponderance of the evidence”, but less proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Oklahoma courts define “clear and convincing” as “highly probable and free from serious doubt” One of my professors from law school put it this way: “There’s no easy way to define clear and convincing, but think of it as 75%.”
2. In a criminal case, if you cannot afford an attorney, you have a constitutional right to have a court-appointed attorney represent you, and the state must pay for your court-appointed attorney.
In a civil case, you have no constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney, even if you cannot afford an attorney. However, in a few civil cases (such as deprived child cases and civil lawsuits against persons in active military service) federal or state statutes provide the right to a court-appointed attorney. In deprived child cases, the parents, legal guardian, and the child have the right to a court-appointed attorney; in cases against servicemembers, the servicemember has the right to court-appointed counsel. The government will pay for the court-appointed attorney in these cases. It must be understood, though, that in civil cases where the court must appoint an attorney for you, your right to an attorney comes from statutes that Congress or the state legislature has passed. Your right does not come from the U.S. Constitution. However, in most civil cases, you have neither a constitutional, nor a statutory, right to a court-appointed attorney – even if you can’t afford an attorney.