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What is a Civil Penalty?

By Christy Bieber
Updated May 16, 2024
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A civil penalty is a monetary fine that is designed to compensate for harm. It is distinct from a criminal penalty, since its purpose is not designed to punish the person who the penalty is imposed on. Instead, it is designed to make the other party, who was damaged or injured in some way, whole. Civil penalties, also referred to as civil fines, are exclusively monetary. They are issued by either a judge or a jury, who determines the appropriate amount of the fine that will be accessed.

In all cases, civil penalties are imposed by the state. They are distinct from civil law suits, or torts, because they are not the result of a private suit between two private parties. If one individual person sues another person in a civil suit and is awarded monetary damages, that money is referred to as civil damages, not penalties.

For example, a civil fine may be in the form of a traffic ticket in which a fine is imposed. Others include parking tickets or tickets for littering. A larger penalty may be assessed if a private person damages government property and the government sues the person. If a person drives into a government building in a car accident, for example, the government may sue the individual for the damages incurred as a result of the accident.

In such a case, the penalty imposed by the judge will be considered a civil penalty because the government is bringing the lawsuit. When a civil fine is assessed in this situation, a jury or judge assesses the appropriate amount of the penalty. The amount will generally be equal to the amount of money required to fix or repair the damages.

Civil penalties are different from criminal penalties. A person cannot be incarcerated or sent to prison as a result of a civil wrong. When a penalty is assessed against a person, it also does not go on the individual's criminal record.

The standard of proof for such penalties is different from the standard of proof for criminal penalties. Unlike in a criminal case, where the defendant's guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, in a civil case, only a preponderance of the evidence is required. This standard is less stringent.

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Discussion Comments
By anon326994 — On Mar 25, 2013

How about a 'Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty' for 'operating a portable electronic device' (e.g., cell phone).

Is this another strong arm mandate of the FAA stepping on our current civil rights to play solitaire?

By Azuza — On May 25, 2012

The example about someone driving their car into a government building and then being sued is pretty interesting. Because technically it's a civil case, but the case is brought by the government. So any damages would be a civil penalty charge.

I wonder if the government sues people often? I feel like I haven't ever heard of anything like that happening in real life. But of course that doesn't mean it never happens.

By starrynight — On May 25, 2012

@sunnySkys - Well, I think the thing with speeding or running a red light is that sometimes it doesn't hurt anyone. But sometimes it does! If you speed or run a red light, you could cause an accident and injure yourself and others. So I can see why most states impose a civil monetary penalty for these offenses.

I don't agree that the standard of proof for these penalties should be lower than criminal penalties though. Even though fines aren't technically meant to punish, a lot of people don't have extra money lying around. So some people might experience significant financial hardship because of a civil penalty.

By sunnySkys — On May 24, 2012

I think it's interesting that civil money penalties are technically not meant to punish the person, but instead to make the other party (the government, I guess) whole.

Because in my opinion, going ten miles over the speed limit doesn't really hurt anyone. But you can definitely get a speeding ticket and be charged a civil penalty for speeding. In my opinion, the only thing this does is punish the person who was speeding.

Now, I don't think people should speed excessively, but I will never buy the idea that a speeding ticket is supposed to make up for some imaginary harm that was caused by the speeding.

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