Differences Between Civil and Criminal Code


The difference between the civil and criminal code can have a material impact on people’s lives, yet you’d be surprised how few of us truly understand the nuanced complexities behind our legal system. Samuel Arbesman at Wired promoted research undertaken by scholars at Michigan State University, which seeks to quantify exactly how complex the US legal code is or, in other words, how hard it is for people to accurately interpret our laws. The implications of a study like that could be profound. Imagine what might happen if it’s discovered that most literate people cannot be reasonably expected to understand our legal code because of its complexity.

More specifically, there are a number of key distinctions between civil court cases and their criminal counterparts. Staff writers at the Judicial Learning Center already put together a helpful comparison. They explain that civil cases are guaranteed by the 7th Amendment of the US Constitution and allow citizens to sue one another for losses and/or damages. Similar to criminal cases, civil suits can apply across state borders thanks to diversity jurisdiction or “diversity of citizenship.” Another overlapping similarity is the fact that civil cases are often left to state authority rather than escalating to the federal level. However, unlike criminal proceedings, defendants are not guaranteed representation. That means all parties involved are responsible for hiring a private attorney or finding alternative resources.

The criminal code is often considered more severe because of the punishments involved. For instance, all federal felonies carry sentencing of greater than one year of imprisonment. While most criminal cases reach their conclusion at the state level, certain crimes are always escalated to federal prosecution. Financial fraud, bank robbery, counterfeiting, and using firearms to commit a crime are all examples of felonies immediately prosecuted at the federal level rather than the state level. Either way, the victim is not responsible for bringing a case forth. It’s instead the US or State Attorney’s Office that prosecutes the defendant. Criminal suits always guarantee legal representation for defendants.

When it comes to white-collar crimes, they’re almost always resolved by civil court proceedings rather than criminal ones. Since it’s civil court people are relying on to resolve white-collar crimes, the cost of hiring a private attorney can be a major limiting factor. That’s perhaps one reason why so few cases go to trial, especially at the federal level. Matt Kaiser at Above The Law shared some salient thoughts on that trend. Either way, you relying exclusively on secondhand information.

Another key to understanding the differences is exploring how civil and criminal cases unfold. In other words, investigate the circumstances, parties, and showcased evidence involved. Consider browsing the report published by Palm Beach County’s Criminal Justice Commission. That could give you a glimpse of major trends. Reaching out to the West Palm Beach court reporters at Brickell Key Court Reporting would be an excellent supplement because you’d have access to a wide range of data that contributes to court outcomes (e.g., transcripts, audio recordings, etc.). Combining resources helps to develop a clearer picture of the major differences.