What is the difference between a civil offense and a crime?
UPDATED: February 20, 2013
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The difference between a civil offense and a criminal offense are usually defined by the nature of the offense and the punishment assessed. Civil offenses involve violations of administrative matters. The Federal Trade Commission frequently imposes civil fines on companies that violate consumer statutes. For example, if an organization carelessly reports incorrect credit information about several consumers, they can be fined for each violation. Another example of a civil offense is contempt of court. This can arise in any civil matter, but is often used in family law matters. If one parent is ordered to pay child support, but fails to make any attempts to pay their obligation, the other parent can move for contempt sanctions. Sanctions can include awarding the other parent attorney’s fees. In extreme cases, the court can hold the non-paying parent in contempt and order them to remain in jail for a period of time. Even though jail time is a consequence, the difference is that the underlying action arose from a civil or administrative dispute, not from the violation of a criminal statute.
Civil Offense vs. Criminal Offense
Criminal offenses, on the other hand, arise from the violation of local ordinances or state or federal statutes prohibiting certain conduct. A criminal offense can involve a fine, an arrest, or confinement in jail or prison. The consequences of a criminal offense are set in relation to the severity of the crime. For example, if you are pulled over because your woofers and tweeters violate a noise ordinance in your city, you are probably only going to be given a ticket and fined. Conversely, if you are pulled over for suspicious driving and the officers determine that you were driving while intoxicated, you are more likely to be arrested. Your punishment could include probation or jail time depending on the circumstances of your case and your criminal history. Regardless of the range of punishment, both charges may appear later on your criminal history record.
The Blurred Line Between Civil and Criminal Offenses
Most people assume that the lack of an arrest means the offense is civil in nature. Traffic stops for speeding only rarely result in an arrest. You are given a ticket and allowed to go on your way. No arrest and fine as a punishment means this is a civil matter, right? Not necessarily. When you signed for the ticket, you also made a promise to appear before a local court and take care of your fine. If you fail to take care of the ticket, the local judge can issue a warrant for your arrest, and you can be charged with an additional crime of “failure to appear.” If the action involves enforcement by a police officer, it’s usually a criminal offense which can eventually result in an arrest.
Whether the offense is civil or criminal in nature, it will be defined by a local, state, or federal statute. State and local statutes can vary greatly by state, county, and city. If you are unsure about whether your activities constitute a criminal or civil offense in your location, consult with a criminal attorney in your area to avoid either type of charge.