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Vail Law: The differences between civil, criminal law

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO, Colorado

Broadly speaking, there are two main areas of law: civil and criminal.

Civil law, in the Vail Valley and elsewhere, is the law established by society concerned with private rights and remedies, and are established on the federal, state and local levels. Criminal law deals with state and federal statues that define criminal offenses and specify fines and other punishment.

A “statute” is an act of the legislature declaring, commanding or prohibiting something. The word is used to designate legislatively-created laws in contradistinction to court-decided law, which is largely decided on a case-by-case basis. Statutes lay out in advance what acts may be permitted or prohibited.



Civil law affords the person wronged a remedy or right to recover something of value from the person causing the harm. Unlike civil law, which is largely “remedial” in nature, criminal laws exact a penalty against the wrongdoer and that penalty is enforced by society.

Actions in civil law are usually brought by one or more persons or entities against other persons or entities. Civil actions may sometimes be brought against or by the government. Criminal actions, however, are brought exclusively by the people against the alleged perpetrator.



Criminal actions are brought by the people against a defendant and are prosecuted by a government lawyer. Criminal actions are prosecuted by the office of the District Attorney, who may be variously referred to as a county attorney, state’s attorney or United States Attorney.

Unless they cannot afford their own attorney, criminal defendants are represented by privately hired counsel to defend them. If a criminal defendant cannot afford privately hired counsel, the people will appoint one for him and will pay that lawyer, usually at a reduced rate set by statute.

The classification of crimes divides them into felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are crimes of a more serious nature than misdemeanors. Under federal law, and many state statutes, including Colorado’s, they are offenses punishable by death or imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. Convicted felons are sentenced to penitentiaries, or prisons, rather than serving their time in county jail. Many states further classify felonies, with varying sentences for each class.



Misdemeanors are lesser crimes, generally punishable by fine or imprisonment other than in a penitentiary. Often, the convicted misdemeanor defendant must serve time and pay a fine, sometimes in the form of restitution to his victim. Under federal law and most state laws, any offense other than a felony is classified as a misdemeanor. They are crimes which are not punishable by death nor by a term of incarceration exceeding one year.

Civil actions may likewise be classified but, instead of the seriousness of the matter, concerns such as the type of dispute, where the parties to the dispute reside and the amount of money in dispute or sought in remediation determines where the action where be heard. Civil actions may be federal actions in circumstances such as where the disputants live in different states or they may be state actions. State actions are generally divisible between actions heard in a higher court (in Colorado, district court) or a lower court (in Colorado, county court) or, if the sum in dispute is relatively insignificant, in Small Claims Court. In Colorado, the maximum amount which may be sought and recovered in small slaims court is $7,500.

One last thing bears saying and that is that the burden of proof is generally different in civil compared to criminal actions. Painting the distinctions in perhaps overly broad strokes, the burden of proof in a civil action is usually “more likely than not,” that is to say what one or the other party claims is more likely than not what happened and that party will prevail. In criminal actions, often depending on the severity of the crime of which the defendant is accused, the burden of proof may range upward to a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The law is a blend of pre-determined rules, or statutes, and laws of precedent and judicial interpretation. Above all, what it strives for is the peaceful resolution of disputes and fairness, evenly meted out to all.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowners associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7:00 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: robbins@colorado.net


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