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“It’s Civil, Not Criminal” (But, Is It?)

December 29, 2019

I’ve heard “it’s civil, not criminal” a few times.  Once, it was a law enforcement officer giving a talk to volunteer mediators during training.  Another time, it was a court clerk who said it as an admonition to a litigant.  Basically, the phrase is used to reduce and confine legal problems.  According to the website for Rasmussen College, Los Angeles Attorney Robert Odell summarized, “civil law deals with disputes between one entity and another. … Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with an individual’s offenses against the state or federal government.”  The problem with Odell’s summary is that it’s not obvious why some conflicts are considered private and why others are said to be offenses against government.

Rather than provide a legal history of private disputes and government offenses, this blog identifies an important aspect of civil litigation in private tenant-landlord disputes that can involve offenses against the state’s courts:  civil lawsuits make use of police agents.  Not only do sheriff agents assign bailiffs to provide security in civil courtrooms and help with delivering court papers to parties in lawsuits (called “Service of Process”), sheriff agents are government officials who enforce court-ordered evictions.  In those cases where a tenant successfully sues a landlord or neighbor for monetary damages, but the landlord or neighbor refuses to comply with a court-ordered judgment, the tenant can start a process which leads to a court-ordered arrest, through a civil bench warrant, of a landlord or neighbor by sheriff agents.

It is the potential interaction between civil litigants in private tenant-landlord disputes, on the one hand, and law enforcement, on the other hand, that raises the possibility of involving law enforcement, either through eviction or through arrest.  Knowing this in advance allows you to understand that starting a private tenant-landlord lawsuit always implies thinking about police agents and the authority of the state’s courts.