Criminal law and civil law are different, but there is some overlap between the two. As a small business owner, it is important to know the difference. Particularly because crimes that small business can fall victim to tend to straddle the line between criminal and civil court.

In this article we break down the differences between civil and criminal court. Additionally, we’ll explore the sort of case that may fall under both categories.

Criminal Cases

Criminal cases are cases where the issue is between the state and an individual or organization. The defendant in a criminal case has committed an offense not just to an individual or business, but society as a whole.

A state attorney acts as the prosecutor in criminal cases. A defendant is a person accused of a crime. The prosecutor charges the defendant with crime through an indictment or information. Indictments are for felonies or other serious crimes, while an information is for misdemeanors.

Prosecutors sometimes bring criminal cases to court without victim corroboration, or without any victim at all. For example, if a police officer pulls someone over while driving under the influence, they will be arrested and prosecuted by the state.

The general public is most aware of criminal trials. TV shows and movies depict criminal trials on a fairly regular basis. Recognition of a trial in criminal court is increasingly common as true crime popularity grows in popularity.

If the defendant is found guilty, there are a few options for punishments: financial penalties, time behind bars, or probation. A financial penalty often consists of fines and court or lawyer fees. Imprisonment can either happen in a prison (for long term state or federal offenders) or a jail (for shorter term stays, typically run by counties). Probation means that a criminal has been released, but is under supervision.

Civil Cases

A civil case is an issue between two people, two organizations (corporations or government organizations), or a person and an organization. The person filing the complaint it called a plaintiff, and the accused is called a defendant. The defendant and plaintiff can be referred to collectively as “parties” or “litigants”.

Cases in civil court are often not necessarily over the breaking of a law, and the formal definition that civil cases are when the defendant has allegedly “not fulfilled a legal duty”. Breach of contracts, and infringement of individual rights.

Minority communities rely on civil cases to make civil rights strides. At protests, police officers arrest individuals for various reasons. Arrested individuals file suit for unlawful arrest. This would be presented as an infringement on rights granted to American citizens by the constitution – such as the right to assemble peacefully.

The In-between

Oftentimes theft of services is a case that seems to straddle the space between the two types of courts.

On one hand, if someone commits theft of services from your business, that is legally theft.
On the other hand, it is not as though someone walked into your office and took something.

So how does the legal system handle that?

Many legal experts will tell you to file a case in civil court, where you will likely get your money back. However, if you have definite proof, via email, text messages, etc. that there was intent to commit theft of services, a lawyer can much more realistically build a criminal case.