What distinguishes criminal law from civil law?
In criminal law, society—in the form of a government—brings an action against an individual for wrongful conduct. The purpose of a criminal action is punishment or societal retribution against those who have violated laws. In civil law, one party sues another for monetary damages or some other form of noncriminal relief. The purpose behind most civil law actions is compensation.
An individual’s liberty is at stake in a criminal action brought by a government. In civil law, one party sues another, seeking not confinement but usually monetary damages. For example, State v. Hudson is a hypothetical criminal case where the state brings criminal charges against Hudson. Jones v. Hudson is a hypothetical civil case in which the party named Jones sues the party named Hudson. Criminal law cases are governed by rules of criminal procedure, while civil law cases are governed by the rules of civil procedure.
Perhaps the most important difference between criminal and civil law concerns the different burdens of proof. In a criminal case the prosecution has to prove that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt—a very high standard. In a civil case the normal standard is simply preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not.