While many Americans have never had any contact with U.S. criminal courts, plenty of us have dealt with the civil court system – commonly, in the form of having to pay a civil penalty.
A civil penalty is a fine that the state assesses against a person to compensate for some harm. A familiar example of a civil penalty is a parking ticket. The driver breaks a rule and the state demands a fine for compensation (for not paying for the parking space, for example). Common traffic violations, such as speeding or running a red light, are also typically considered civil offenses and result in fines.
Civil penalties (sometimes called civil fines) are different from civil damages. Civil damages are the result of a civil lawsuit, or tort, between two private parties. If one party sues the other, and the outcome of the suit is that one party must pay an amount of money to the other, that is considered civil damages. Civil penalties, in contrast, always involve the state and a private party.
Civil penalties are also different from criminal penalties, which are designed to punish those who break laws. While criminal penalties can sometimes be in the form of fines, they can also consist of jail sentences or other punishments. For example, serious driving offenses, such as DUI or reckless diving, are generally treated as criminal violations and result in criminal penalties, including hefty fines and possibly jail time.
Civil penalties are imposed by a judge or a jury and are always monetary in nature. You cannot go to jail for a civil violation, although civil penalties can lead to criminal penalties. For example, if you fail to pay your traffic tickets, the state may rescind your drivers license, and if you drive while your license is suspended, a criminal penalty can result.
The legal standard for civil cases is much less strict than for criminal cases. Cases in criminal court must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while civil cases can be proven with a “preponderance of evidence.”
Civil penalties do not appear on your criminal record, but civil traffic violations, for example, may show up on your driving record, which could affect your insurance rates and even your potential employment opportunities. Too many traffic violations can also lead to suspension or revocation of your driver’s license.
It’s important to keep in mind that different communities may classify laws and their violations in different ways. So, an offense that is a civil violation in one city could be considered a criminal infraction in another. You may need to seek legal help to make sure you understand the consequences of any legal penalty assessed against you.