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Civil Theft vs. Criminal Theft: What You Need to Know


Theft is a serious crime that can have significant legal and financial consequences. However, not all theft cases are the same. There are substantial distinctions between the two types of theft and they often require proper legal guidance from a professional to navigate successfully. Understanding what is civil theft versus criminal theft is crucial for safeguarding yourself, your business, and your assets

What is Civil Theft?

Civil theft occurs when someone intentionally takes or uses another person’s property for personal gain without the owner’s consent. The term property can include:

  • Real estate and land
  • Tangible assets, such as cash, jewelry, and cars
  • Intellectual property, such as patents, copyrights, and trademarks
  • Documents, such as checks, property titles, certificates, and bonds

Employee theft is one example of a civil theft case. It is considered civil theft if an employee takes company property or assets for personal use without permission, such as office supplies or confidential information. 

Another example is theft of loss or mislaid property. For instance, if someone finds a lost wallet and decides to keep the cash within. Additionally, conversion is another form of civil theft. For example, if a business partner uses their authority to expend company funds for personal gain, it could be considered civil theft.

Unlike criminal theft, civil theft is not considered a crime; it is instead a tort. A tort is a wrongful act or infringement of a right that results in civil liability. As such, victims can file a lawsuit in civil court to seek compensation or damages based on the value of the stolen property.

Civil theft proceedings will vary by state and the nature of the claim. In general, filing a civil theft claim is a remedy for victims to receive financial compensation for the misused or stolen property. It does not involve criminal charges against the person who committed the act. In such cases, a civil litigation attorney can provide essential guidance on the legal processes involved in filing a civil theft claim, ensuring that victims receive the appropriate compensation for their losses within the framework of state laws and regulations.

What is Criminal Theft?

Criminal theft occurs when someone unlawfully takes another’s property to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of its use or value. The state prosecutes criminal theft, which can result in criminal charges, fines, probation, or jail time. 

Criminal theft can include more minor actions, such as shoplifting or petty left. However, it may involve more extensive actions like grand theft or embezzlement. Grant theft, also called larceny, is considered a felony and occurs when someone steals property of significant value, such as expensive jewelry, large sums of money, or vehicles.

Embezzlement occurs when someone has legal access to another’s property and later criminally intends to keep or use it unlawfully. For example, when an employee extracts funds from an employer’s or company’s account for personal use.

Criminal theft proceedings will differ depending on the state and nature of the theft. For example, a circuit criminal division handles major felony theft cases, whereas a county criminal division resolves minor criminal misdemeanors.

Victims of criminal theft can file a lawsuit with the appropriate court to seek restitution and justice. The court proceeding will involve recovering stolen property and evidence and prosecuting the person who committed the act. Victims of these cases are encouraged to seek legal representation, especially if it involves circuit criminal courts.

Differences Between Civil Theft and Criminal Theft

Civil and criminal theft are similar in that both actions result from taking and or using someone else’s property for personal gain and without proper authorization from the owner. However, there are crucial differences between the two actions. Consider the following:

  • Legal system: Criminal theft is a crime prosecuted by the state where criminal charges are brought against the offender to maintain public order. Conversely, civil theft is not a crime but allows victims a legal remedy to seek compensation or recover stolen property through a civil lawsuit.
  • Burden of proof: In criminal theft cases, the state must prove the violator guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in civil theft cases, the plaintiff must only provide clear, convincing evidence that establishes the defendant’s liability.
  • Potential penalties: Criminal theft offenders may face fines, probation, or imprisonment. Civil theft offenders can be found liable for damages but are not criminally charged. Instead, theft victims seek recovery from the offender for lost or stolen property through civil court proceedings. 

Furthermore, penalties for criminal theft can depend on various factors. Some examples include the value of what was stolen, whether the offender used a weapon or threat of force to obtain the property unlawfully, and whether it was a malicious act. In other words, a petty criminal theft, such as a “dine and dash,” would not evoke the same punishment as embezzlement would.

In sum, criminal theft is prosecuted by the state and can result in criminal penalties, including jail time. On the other hand, civil theft is remedied through civil lawsuits and can result in recovery or compensation for the value of what was lost or stolen. These distinctions are significant and may require proper legal guidance to navigate successfully.

How to Protect Yourself from Theft

You may consider employing a few preventative measures in the workplace to avoid becoming a victim of theft. For example, it is essential to know your employees and be attentive to changes in behavior or lifestyle. Employers should also regularly monitor staff to ensure lawful business transactions and activities. 

Additionally, purchase orders, control cash receipts, and informal audits effectively ensure transparency and accountability in purchases, transactions, and deposits. Implementing and monitoring these procedures can help minimize the risks of theft. 

Moreover, installing computer security measures can protect individuals from the theft of digital assets or personal information. It is crucial to remain attentive and take precautions when handling and sharing financial or personal information, whether online or in person.

At any rate, if you become a victim of theft, you must secure any evidence you have concerning the matter and take advantage of free consultations. A civil litigation attorney can advise you on your legal options and help you determine the best course of action for your specific situation. 

If you intend to seek compensation for a civil theft matter, a civil litigation attorney can help you file the appropriate documents with the court and represent you if necessary. In criminal theft cases, it is essential to also report the crime to local authorities.


Understanding what is civil theft versus criminal theft is important for anyone who wants to protect themselves and their property from theft or fraud. Individuals should stay informed and conduct due diligence to minimize the risks of theft and safeguard their investments. 

If you believe you are a civil or criminal theft victim, you must report it to local authorities and seek legal aid as soon as possible.

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