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, 248-49 (1980) established a two layer test. First, which penalty is the intent or preference of the legislature? Then, if the intent is civil penalty, will 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.
[Last updated in May of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]