civil penalties (civil fines)

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A civil penalty is a non-criminal remedy for a party’s violations of laws or regulations. Civil penalties usually only include civil fines or other financial payments as a remedy for damages. An action seeking a civil penalty can be brought by the government, or by a private party in the shoes of the government.

To distinguish a civil penalty from a criminal penalty can sometimes be tricky. The Supreme Court of United States in United States v. Ward, 448 U.S. 242 (1980) established a two-layer test.

  • First, one examines which penalty is the intent or preference of the legislature. 
  • Then, if the intent is a civil penalty, one looks at whether the statute’s purpose or effect will negate the intention. 
    • If the answer to the second question is no, the penalty is most likely a civil one.

See e.g., ZB v. Superior Court, 8 Cal.5th 175, 252 Cal. Rptr. 3d 228, 448 P.3d 239 (Cal. 2019).

[Last updated in August of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]