Criminal Law and Civil Law: The Differences

Our California justice system is really two separate and distinct systems. One is our criminal justice system, and the other is our civil justice system. The criminal justice system involves the loss of liberty if the defendant loses in court. A civil defendant usually must pay monetary damages if they lose.

Although the two systems are different, they work out of the same court system described earlier in this module. In fact, a trial judge might hear criminal matters in the morning and civil cases in the afternoon.

It is important for you to understand the distinction between the criminal and civil justice systems. As a security officer, it is possible that you will encounter both.

Administrative law is separate from both the criminal and civil law systems. Administrative laws regulate licensees. For example, the question as to whether a security officer’s license is valid or should be renewed is a decision determined by an Administrative Law Judge. An Administrative Law Judge presides over regulatory matters.

Criminal Law

As previously stated, criminal law involves the loss of liberty. Crimes are punished by fines and/or incarceration. There are two major categories of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are crimes punishable by a year or more in the State prison. Misdemeanors are crimes punishable up to a maximum of one year in the county jail. Some crimes can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. These are referred to as “wobblers”.

Penal Code

The law for the majority of crimes in California is set forth in the California Penal Code. The Penal Code establishes the categories of crimes, the elements for each crime, and the maximum or mandatory sentencing for each crime. However, other codes also establish crimes. These include: the Health & Safety Code (e.g., illegal drugs), the Vehicle Code (e.g., driving under the influence, hit and run), and Business & Professions Code (e.g., governing illegal activity by professionals, such as security officers under the “Private Security Services Act”).

City or County Ordinances

In addition to the California Penal Code, there are certain crimes in California that arise by violation of local City or County Ordinances. For example, a building code violation may be charged as a misdemeanor if the City or County ordinance provides the authority to do so. Loitering or ordinances prohibiting skateboarding or bicycling in certain areas are examples of crimes that may be designated by local ordinances.

Civil Law

As opposed to criminal law, which involves the loss of liberty or criminally imposed fines, civil law involves the loss of money from either a “tortfeasor” (one who commits a tort), or an individual, group, or corporate entity that may have breached an obligation or contract with another. The categories of civil law that are most applicable to the security officer profession are intentional torts (such as assault and battery) and unintentional torts (such as negligence).

A “tort” is simply a Latin word meaning a “wrong.” If someone has committed the tort of negligence, then they have “wronged” the other person by being negligent. (This will be discussed later in the Unintentional Torts section.) The party claiming a wrong is the Plaintiff.