Understanding Torts and Crimes

For many years I’ve lived with the vague knowledge that crimes and torts are both punishable offenses, but I never bothered to investigate the difference between them till now. So here are some notes I want to share.

First we must break apart the term Law. In the United States “the Law” divides into two categories: Private law and Public law.

Private Law: Torts

As the title implies, this type of law guides the relations of individuals and businesses in a community (hamlet, town, city, county, state, or country). When violations of private law occur, then we say that a ‘tort’ has been committed.

Other subtleties mark torts, such as to whether the infraction was intentional or from an act of negligence. This distinction allows for fair treatment of the wrong-doer, and a fair and just compensation to the injured party. An action against the offender is called a cause of action (civil suit).

The most common torts are:

* Unfair competitive practices
* Slander – a false and oral besmirch on an individual’s reputation.
* Libel – a false and written besmirch on an individual’s reputation
* Personal injury – damages due to accidents, defective products (product liability), and other malpractices.
* Fraud – intentional deceit.

Public Law: Crimes

Public law applies to the relationships between individuals or businesses and society. When an infraction against the community occurs, a crime occurs. It is the job of public defenders -district attorneys- to defend the public interest. An action against the offender is called a prosecution.

Crimes are categorized by Congress as felonies and misdemeanors (also referred to as ‘lesser crimes,” although there are many different types of crimes that fall under each class.

The most common crimes are:

* Break-ins, burglary, theft, robbery.
* Forgery – the intentional altering, distorting, and defacing documents (to include signatures).
* The use of deceptive weights, measures, or labels – Most States have bureaus that supervise the standards set by law: If a motorist asks for 10 gallons of gas, did he actually get 10 gallons? Was it premium or regular? Does the cereal box really contain 10 ounces?
* The ill use of mails with the intention to defraud others.
* Receipt of stolen property.
* Filing fraudulent income tax returns.
* Embezzlement – the misappropriation of funds.

Some crimes, such as embezzlement, may be both: a tort and a crime, as we saw in the case of Bernie Madoff. Not only did the disgraced financier abuse the private trust of his clients, but also the public trust.

For both torts and crimes, common law statutes of limitations apply. This simply means that actions for remedy must be brought within the allowed periods of time, or the case will “run out.”

For military personnel, both torts and crimes are covered under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Unit commanders exercise discretion as to whether to punish under Article 15 of the Code, or to convene a court martial.