I was reading this overview of the differences between civil and criminal cases and they state

Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole.

Followed by

Individuals, corporations, and the federal government can also bring civil suits in federal court claiming violations of federal statutes or constitutional rights. For example, the federal government can sue a hospital for overbilling Medicare and Medicaid, a violation of a federal statute.

That seems strange to me, why wouldn't stealing from the government be considered a criminal case?

I suppose the answer might be, that's just the way the statute is written. In which case, my question would be, why are some things that are wrong involving the government considered to be part of civil or criminal law?

  • I think you should state the difference in terms of looking for restitution/compensation vs. looking for punishment.
    – mario
    Jan 9, 2016 at 16:32
  • @mario should that comment be on the answer?
    – dsolimano
    Jan 11, 2016 at 17:15

1 Answer 1


Civil litigation involves general causes of action that are available to anyone, including both private parties and the government. Civil courts are designed primarily to provide restitution to the injured party.

Criminal courts exist for governments to exercise their police powers: specific, limited authority held only by the government. The principal purposes of criminal law are...well, they're debated, but broadly speaking, it's to punish and/or rehabilitate the criminal and deter future criminals.

Because criminal conviction can result in jail time and even the death penalty, there are more stringent procedural protections accorded to criminal defendants than there are to civil defendants. So when the government's goal is to recover damages, it's easier for them to use the less burdensoome civil procedures, just the same as anyone else would.

Let me give you an example. Someone steals your identity and runs up $100,000 on your credit card.

You call the police, and they find someone they think is the guy. To convict him, the police must convince an entire jury panel that he did it, beyond a reasonable doubt--a high standard. He pleads the fifth, and without his testimony, the police may not succeed. If they do, he will be sent to jail, and he may also be ordered to give part or all of your money back. If the case is weak, however, the police may not want to spend their limited time on it--and that's their call, not yours. (This also applies to government agencies; only law enforcement can bring a criminal case, not any government agency.)

However, you can also file a civil lawsuit. In that lawsuit, depending on the jurisdiction, you may only need to convince some of the jury--civil verdicts don't always have to be unanimous. You may even just face a judge, with no jury. And the legal standard is a "preponderance of the evidence," which in layman's terms just means "more likely than not"--a much easier thing to prove. Because the Fifth Amendment doesn't apply to civil litigation, you may even be able to argue before the jury that the defendant's refusal to testify suggests he's guilty.

In summary: civil lawsuits use different rules and procedures, which may make it easier to recover money (or get other civil relief, such as an injunction) in cases where that's the goal. These courts are open to anyone, including the government. But if the government wants to use its special police powers to put someone in jail or get other criminal relief, they have to use the stricter criminal rules and procedures.

  • +1, though is there a way to work en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_prosecution into the answer?
    – dsolimano
    Jun 5, 2015 at 14:30
  • Private prosecutions are such an insignificant, rare part of the law I'm not sure they're necessary for a general overview like this one.
    – chapka
    Jun 5, 2015 at 15:46
  • Perfect, I sense material for a new question on the history of criminal prosecution.
    – dsolimano
    Jun 5, 2015 at 16:25
  • This answer makes me wonder how traffic tickets (e.g., speeding) can really be treated as "civil" offenses.
    – Andy
    Nov 19, 2016 at 1:12

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