Enforcement: The Big Difference Between Criminal and Civil Cases

It is a mistake to take someone to court in a civil case and expect the proceedings to be identical to what happens in criminal cases. Civil and criminal law are distinctly different in many ways. And in terms of resolving court cases, the biggest difference is enforcement. Too many civil litigants find that out the hard way.

For instance, did you know that courts do not enforce civil judgments? In civil cases, enforcement is left up to the two parties involved. This explains why so many civil judgments go unenforced for years at a time, and often permanently.

Different Types of Cases

The different enforcement protocols are related to how criminal and civil cases are constructed. In a criminal case, the defendant has been officially charged by the government with breaking a law. On the low end of the scale you might have something minor, like a petty larceny misdemeanor. On the other end are felony crimes like murder and grand theft auto.

Federal and state constitutions clearly give the government the authority to write and enforce laws. That authority is that which allows criminals to be prosecuted. And when convicted, that same authority allows courts to enforce the consequences of conviction – i.e., criminal sentencing.

For example, a person convicted of first-degree murder is subject to at least a minimum amount of prison time. Courts have the legal authority to impose a prison sentence and to enforce it. Thus, the judge will pass sentence and remand the convicted criminal to the custody of prison officials.

A civil case is entirely different. In civil cases, courts are not hearing matters of criminal law. Instead, they are settling disputes between two parties who cannot seem to settle things among themselves. Civil cases almost always involve money, be they small claims cases or lawsuits.

In a civil case, a judge has the legal authority to rule in favor of the plaintiff by entering a judgment against the defendant. That judgment legally recognizes the rights and responsibilities of both parties. But that’s it. The two parties are expected to work out the details of the judgment themselves.

Collecting on Judgments

So how are judgments collected? To illustrate, we will use a fictional consumer from Salt Lake City who has failed to make payment on a personal loan. His lender has taken him to court and successfully had a judgment entered against him. He is now required to pay the outstanding loan balance plus the lender’s court costs.

Immediately following the court hearing, the lender’s attorney will most likely interview the defendant in order to gain information about employment, assets, etc. The attorney then uses that information to extract payment from the debtor. The debtor’s wages might be garnished. Certain assets he owns might be seized and sold.

If the debtor refuses to cooperate, a lender may avail themselves of the services of Judgment Collectors, a local debt collection agency that specializes in judgments. Judgment Collectors has access to information and tools the lender does not. They can usually get around a debtor’s efforts to avoid paying.

As a side note, the lender has only a limited amount of time to collect on the judgment. In most states, enforcement is only allowed for 7 to 10 years. If the lender fails to collect, they must either walk away or go back to court to get the judgment extended.

Enforcement is the significant difference between criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, the government enforces criminal convictions. In civil cases, the parties are left to enforce judgments on their own.

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