There are two types of law in Texas: criminal and civil.
Some state courts are granted jurisdiction to hear only cases involving criminal or civil law, whereas other courts may have limited jurisdiction involving criminal and civil matters.
Criminal laws are laws that prohibit a behavior that the state has determined to be harmful to society. If someone violates a criminal law, that person commits a crime. Criminal laws in Texas are divided into two broad types of criminal law based on the severity of the crime: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are non-indictable offenses (i.e., offenses that do not result in imprisonment in a state penitentiary) such as traffic violations, theft of less than $2500, and DUI; these behaviors, while considered harmful to society, are generally viewed as lesser crimes). Felonies are more serious crimes, such as crimes involving violence, which may result in imprisonment in a state penitentiary.
Within this framework, crimes are further categorized into classes “according to the relative seriousness of the offense” (Texas Penal Code § 12.03., 12.04). Each class corresponds to a sentencing range, with more serious offenses having higher sentencing ranges. These classes, in order of severity (from most serious to least serious), are as follows:
- Misdemeanors – Class A, Class B, Class C
- Felonies – Capital felonies, first degree felonies, second degree felonies, third degree felonies, and state jail felonies
Courts that hear criminal cases seek to determine guilt. When determining guilt, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement requires the state to provide a preponderance of evidence. If a court determines guilt, the defendant (i.e., person accused) will be sentenced based on how the crime was classified. Depending on the crime in question, the sentence may involve monetary fines, imprisonment in a state correctional facility, or both.
In criminal court proceedings, the state is required to demonstrate the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Civil laws are laws that regulate interactions between individuals, such as divorces and law suits. The act of violating a civil law by causing injury, harm, or damage to another person or entity is referred to as a tort – regardless of whether the interaction resulted from intentional acts, negligence, failure to act if an individual has a duty to do so, or a violate of civil statutes or laws. In Texas, juvenile proceedings (regardless of whether criminal activity is involved) are considered civil law matters (Texas Family Code §51.10).
Courts that hear civil matters seek to determine liability. If the court sides with the plaintiff (i.e., the party that brought the civil case against the individual) and determines the defendant is liable, the defendant may be required to pay compensatory damages, such as compensation for medical expenses, missed income, or pain and suffering, or punitive damages, or fines that are intended to punish an individual for the civil law violation.
In civil cases, the burden of proof required to demonstrate liability is lower than what is required in criminal proceedings. Instead of requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt (as is the case when determining guilt), a defendant in a civil case may be found liable if there is a preponderance of evidence that the person is responsible for the injury.