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What Is Criminal Liability?

Criminal liability involves crimes against the state.
Drunk driving is an example of a civil liability issue that may become criminal if someone is killed.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2014
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Criminal liability is the legal responsibility for a crime against the state, making the perpetrator subject to prosecution in a court of law and punishment, if convicted. The standards for criminal liability vary by jurisdiction around the world, reflecting different attitudes about criminal justice and the legal system. Generally, for a court to find criminal liability, the perpetrator must have actually committed the crime and acted with intent, in contrast with civil liability, where intent is not a requirement.

Individual nations all have their own sets of criminal codes covering topics like arson, murder, assault, and so forth. When police officers identify a crime, they conduct an investigation to see if it is possible to locate a suspect and gather supporting information the government, represented by a prosecutor, can use to press a case in court. A person with criminal liability may be subject to jail time, fines, and punishments like mandatory community service, depending on the nature of the crime.

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The state must show that a person committed the crime in question, with the intent to do so. For example, if the state accuses a person of murder, it must show that the person killed the victim and meant to commit murder, using evidence like statements made prior to the crime, or the presence of a motive like standing to inherit large amounts of money from the decedent. If intent is not present, there may still be civil liability. For instance, if a housekeeper waxes a floor and fails to warn the homeowner, and she slips and breaks her neck, the court may rule that the housekeeper had no intent to commit murder, but is still liable for the death through negligence.

Defenses in cases where criminal liability is at issue can involve either attacking the claims of intent, or questioning whether the defendant committed the crime at all. A defense attorney might suggest that a death happened accidentally, for instance, and while tragic, it is not grounds for criminal penalties. Likewise, in an assault case, an attorney might challenge the evidence linking her client with the crime, arguing that the client didn't commit the assault.

In some jurisdictions, certain kinds of crimes ordinarily treatable as civil matters may become criminal. The most common example is drunk driving. Under civil law, drunk driving could be considered a civil legal issue, because a driver is behaving negligently, and will be liable for financial damages in the event of an accident, but not criminal penalties. If the driver kills someone, it may become an issue of criminal liability, under the argument that the driver knowingly drove while drunk, aware of the risks to others. Distinguishing between civil and criminal liability when taking a matter to court is important, because the consequences are very different.

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