The legal system in the United States is not composed of a single set of laws and courts. Instead, there exists an inter-connected web of laws, regulations, and courts that stretch across the country, both at the state level and the federal level. Both the federal and state court systems have a hierarchy that allows higher courts to review decisions made by lower courts. Additionally, both the federal and state court systems have civil and criminal courts. FindLaw's Legal System section provides a closer look at the way the U.S. court system is set up, with an in-depth look into the U.S. federal court system and state court cases. In this section, you can also find information about civil courts, including articles about class action lawsuits, tips on negotiating a settlement, the judge's role in court, and a helpful glossary with terms related to courts and the law.
Civil cases are filed when a person, organization, or entity (such as a corporation) - the plaintiff - claims that another person, organization, or entity - the defendant - failed a legal duty that was owed to the plaintiff. Common claims in civil lawsuits include negligence, assault, infliction of emotional distress, nuisance, personal injury, breach of contract, and property damage. Whether to file a civil lawsuit in federal or state court will depend on the circumstances, although most civil lawsuits are filed in state courts. Federal court is appropriate for a civil lawsuit if the plaintiff and defendant are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000, or if the claim involves a violation of federal laws or constitutional rights provided by the U.S. Constitution.
Criminal cases are brought against people who are accused of committing a crime. Unlike civil cases, where the injured party files a lawsuit, in criminal cases, the government brings charges against the person accused of a crime. Most criminal cases are tried in state courts with the state's attorneys prosecuting the case. However, if a person is charged with a federal crime, the case will be tried in a federal court with a United States Attorney prosecuting the case. Although many criminal cases involve a victim, there are cases in which a person is charged without a specific victim. For example, a person can be prosecuted for driving under the influence even if he or she did not injure anyone or cause property damage.
Differences between Civil and Criminal Cases
There are various differences between civil cases and criminal cases. A criminal case involves an action that has been classified as being harmful to society, so the "plaintiff" in a criminal case, which is referred to as the prosecution, is always the government. A civil case, on the other hand, generally results from a dispute between individuals or organizations, although governments can also be involved in civil case as a plaintiff or a defendant.
The end result between a criminal and civil case is also different. In a criminal case, if the defendant is found guilty, he or she can be sentenced to fines, incarceration, and/or probation. Civil cases on the other hand, do not result in jail or prison time, but instead a monetary judgment and/or an injunction, which is a court order to stop or to perform a particular action.
Hiring an Attorney
The legal system is a generally complex system that requires knowledge of laws and procedures. If you're involved in a federal or state lawsuit - whether on the plaintiff side or defendant side - it's usually a good idea to contact a local litigation attorney for guidance.
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Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.