A common question among people facing an upcoming day in court is, “How do I know if am facing civil or criminal charges?” The short answer is: for civil charges, you get served with a court summons, and for criminal charges, you get arrested.
Let’s explain this a little further.
A civil case, generally speaking, is a dispute between two parties, where one individual or company (the plaintiff) sues another (the defendant) for some alleged violation—whether it’s failure to live up to an agreement, or causing some form of harm (e.g., an injury accident). The primary objective with civil charges is to right the alleged wrong. In most civil suits, the primary penalty is financial compensation. If you are sued in a civil case, you will not be arrested, nor will you face any jail time; you will be served with a summons to appear, and if you lose in court, you may have to pay certain fines or compensation. (If you fail to show up for your court summons, however, you may be found in contempt, which is a criminal offense and can result in arrest.)
With criminal charges, the offense or wrongdoing is considered to have been committed against either the government or the citizens in general. For these cases, the state or federal government essentially becomes the “plaintiff,” and tries you in court. Generally speaking, felony charges begin with a formal “indictment,” while misdemeanor accusations are called “information.” For criminal charges, you may be arrested and held until your assigned bail is posted, at which time you may be released under certain restrictions pending your trial date. If you are convicted on criminal charges, you may face probation, fines and/or imprisonment.
For more information about the difference between civil and criminal cases, or if you need help determining whether you’re facing civil or criminal charges, contact one of the experienced attorneys at the Federal Criminal Law Center today.