Criminal and civil law are two major, separate branches of law in the United States. Only a state or federal government can charge and try a person for a crime. In a civil case, a private or public party can make a claim against both private or public parties. A party that has been charged with a crime by the state can also have civil claims filed against them for damages their crime caused. One example of this is a DUI which is a criminal charge. If the defendant in a criminal DUI case injured someone while they were driving while under the influence, they can also be sued in a civil lawsuit. It does not matter if the defendant was or was not convicted in their criminal case for an injured party to have the right to sue them for monetary damages.


The federal or a state government prosecutes parties that have committed crimes against the state. In this context, “the state,” can be crimes that break federal laws that govern the entire country of United State, or crimes that go against state or local laws that are governed by state courts. A crime against the state doesn’t necessarily mean that someone attacked a government worker or damaged a public building (even though it can be this type of crime.) Robbery and murder are just two examples of crimes against the state. When a defendant is found guilty in a criminal case, they typically are sentenced to time in prison and sometimes are given a fine.

Crimes can be committed against federal and state governments

If someone who is charged with a crime cannot afford a private attorney, they can ask to have a public defender appointed to them. A public defender is an attorney-at-law that is paid for by the state or federal government. A defendant in a criminal case has the option of defending themselves without the aid of an attorney.

Criminal trials are typically tried with a jury but some jurisdictions allow defendants to waive their right to a jury trial. Trials that are solely decided by a judge are often referred to as bench trials. Some criminal cases are settled before they go to trial.


A civil court case involves a dispute between people or entities such as a business or government agency. Civil claims can be brought by one party, the plaintiff, against another party or (parties) the defendants.

There are many different kinds of cases that are tried in civil courts that involve money. A plaintiff will typically sue a defendant for damages that can be compensated with money such as those related injuries that are the result of a car accident or medical malpractice, etc. A civil claim can also result in a defendant being required to change something such as a building that was not built to code; or in a divorce when changes in living and financial arrangements, etc. are determined and ordered by the court.

Civil cases are typically tried at the state level. There are many civil cases that are settled without going to trial. Parties who agree to settle usually do this because even though it may not be exactly what they want, at least they get part of what they want rather than nothing at all.