What is the first thing you think of when you hear someone mention having to go to court? Most of us think of things like traffic tickets and divorce court. What so many people fail to realize is that there are two different types of courts in this country: criminal courts and civil courts. Their end results – judgments and convictions – are two different things.
Criminal convictions are the result of being found guilty of a crime. In some rare instances, civil penalties are attached to the sentence handed down in a criminal matter. It does not work the same way in the other direction. There are no criminal convictions or verdicts rendered in a civil court. All you get are judgments.
Civil Cases Involve Lawsuits
A civil court case is initiated by one party filing a lawsuit against another. It could be a minor case filed in small claims court or a major deal involving huge sums of money. Here are just a few examples:
- Unpaid Rent – Landlords may file suit against deadbeat tenants who do not pay their rent, even after being evicted. This is pretty common.
- Personal Injury – People injured in car accidents often sue the people who caused the accidents in order to recover money to pay for their injuries.
- Product Liability – Consumers might sue manufacturers as a result of a defective product causing injury, death, or property damage.
In every case, a judgment is entered based on a hearing of the evidence and arguments from both sides. The judgment determines which party prevails. In nearly every case, a judgment also includes a means of restitution. That restitution can include the requirement to pay the winning party’s legal costs.
Criminal Cases Involve Charges
Criminal cases are different because they involved charges of breaking the law. A driver facing DUI is being charged with the crime of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A person being tried for shoplifting has been charged with theft or petit larceny.
Criminal cases result in verdicts. A defendant is either acquitted, found not guilty, or convicted. This is where criminal verdict and civil judgments are so different. A criminal verdict of guilt says that a defendant did commit the crime in question. A civil judgment does not associate guilt of any type. It simply establishes that the losing party owes the winning party some sort of restitution.
Enforcement Is Different, Too
Another significant difference between civil judgments and court verdict has to do with enforcement. Judgment Collectors, a Salt Lake City collection agency that specializes in judgments, explains that enforcement in a civil case is left to the winning party. Courts do not get involved.
If you were to win a civil judgment against a customer who doesn’t pay his bill, you would have the legal authority to collect that bill plus any additional associated costs. But you and your attorney, or collection agency, would have to handle it. The court will not collect the money for you.
Enforcing a criminal conviction is different. When a thief is convicted of stealing, the court does not leave it up to him to pay his debt to society. Instead, a court enforces its verdict by passing sentence. The thief will go to jail, pay a fine, complete public service, or whatever.
Needless to say that a civil judgment is not the same thing as a criminal conviction. That’s because civil and criminal courts operate according to different laws and standards. That’s a good thing to know if you are ever hauled into court for any reason.