Unless you work in the legal industry, you may not appreciate the difference between criminal law and civil law. In a nutshell, criminal law deals with crime and punishment, and civil law deals with disputes that are not criminal in nature.
When a person is accused of a crime, their liberty interests are at stake. In layman’s terms, if a person is convicted of a crime, it is possible they may be punished with jail or prison time. Additionally, the person could be fined or placed on probation.
If a person is sued in civil court, and loses, the penalty will generally be a monetary award in favor of the other party. A civil court, however, cannot order jail or prison against either party except in rare circumstances.
Let me use an example that some of you may remember. In 1995, O.J. Simpson, a famous football player, was charged with the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown, and Ronald Goldman. He was defended by a “dream team” of lawyers including F. Lee Bailey, Robert Blasier, Shawn Chapman Holley, Robert Shapiro, and Alan Dershowitz; Johnnie Cochran later became the defense team’s lead attorney. In the
end, O.J. was acquitted – he was found to be not guilty of all the charges. That meant that the court could not punish him, he did not go to jail or pay any fines for these allegations. The criminal case was over.
However, after his acquittal, O.J. was sued in civil court, by the estate of his late wife, for her wrongful death. O.J. lost that trial and was required to pay $33.5 million as a penalty for his actions. The civil court took his money but did not have authority to take his freedom, only a criminal conviction could do that.