Civil Compromise for a Criminal Offense

By , Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)
Updated May 05, 2023

In some states, someone facing relatively minor criminal charges might be able to avoid further prosecution through a "civil compromise." Read on to find out what a civil compromise is and when it might be an option.

What is a Civil Compromise?

A civil compromise allows a court to dismiss a misdemeanor charge if the defendant settles the case by paying money to the victim of the crime. Civil compromise is a type of restorative justice, which allows the parties to craft a resolution that meets their needs. The benefits of civil compromise include:

  • compensation to the victim
  • quick and efficient resolution of the matter, and
  • no criminal record for the accused person

Although crime victims can get financial compensation after a defendant is convicted (through an order of restitution) some victims would rather avoid the criminal trial process and just get their damages covered. And if the accused person isn't convicted, there won't be a restitution order. So, a civil compromise can be an attractive option when the victim's key concern is financial, and they want to ensure they won't have the expense and hassle of having to bring a civil suit.

Requirements of a Civil Compromise

Although state laws vary, civil compromise is generally available only when:

  • The same act results in criminal and civil liability. For example, shoplifting is a criminal act, and if the thief escapes with the property, the business owner would have grounds for a civil suit seeking compensation for the loss.
  • Before the case goes to trial, the victim formally states that he or she is satisfied by the compromise. This element is crucial— the victim must tell the court that he or she wants the civil compromise, and do so before trial begins. The idea behind this rule is that, in appropriate cases, the public interest is best served by immediate and full restitution to the victim, rather than drawn-out court proceedings.
  • The judge (and sometimes the prosecutor) must consent to the compromise. This requirement ensures that the compromise is fair to all the parties involved.
  • The crime is a misdemeanor. Felony charges normally aren't fair game for compromises, as explained more fully below.

In states that don't specifically authorize civil compromise, or in a state that does permit them but the law's requirements aren't met, a payment to the victim won't prevent criminal charges or conviction. In other words, a defendant's offer to pay the victim for the consequences of a crime will probably have no bearing on whether the prosecutor presses on with the case.

The Same Act

Civil compromise is allowed only if the same act results in criminal and civil liability.

Same act. For example, if a defendant punches someone in the face, the defendant has committed the crime of battery and can be charged with that crime. The defendant has also committed the tort of battery, and the victim can sue the defendant in civil court for damages (money) that will cover medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering. In states that allow civil compromise, a misdemeanor battery case could be compromised because the same act (hitting) results in civil and criminal liability.

Different acts. In contrast, if a defendant drives drunk and hits someone's mailbox and is charged with driving under the influence (DUI), the drunk driving charge could not be compromised even if the defendant replaces the mailbox. Driving drunk is one act, but damaging property is another. Although a common accompaniment, property damage is incidental to the crime of drunk driving.

What Crimes Are Eligible for a Civil Compromise?

Usually, only misdemeanors can be dismissed as a result of a civil compromise. (In most states, misdemeanors are crimes punishable by up to one year in jail; by contrast, felonies are more serious crimes, punishable by state prison terms.) Felony charges are inappropriate for compromise because serious crimes typically pose more harm to the entire community, not merely the victim, and payment to the victim doesn't redress the harm done to society. Civil compromise might be allowed in misdemeanor hit-and-run cases (those that involve only property damage), assault or battery cases that don't cause serious injury and are not against specially protected victims, petty theft, shoplifting, vandalism, and fraud.

However, not all misdemeanor charges can be dealt with in a civil compromise. Historically, civil compromise was available in domestic violence cases, but many states have outlawed it in these situations. The fear is that even though the option technically rests with the victim, many victims will feel pressure from their abuser to initiate a compromise that may be to their detriment. In addition, domestic violence is increasingly viewed as a crime not only against the victim, but also against the family and society as a whole.

Example of Restrictions on Civil Compromise

Many states that allow civil compromise for misdemeanors have exceptions for certain kinds of cases. For example, California doesn't allow compromises when:

  • the criminal act is committed against or by a police officer performing official duties
  • the act is done "riotously"
  • the accused person intended to commit a felony
  • the case involves domestic violence or a protective order, or
  • the case involves elder or child abuse.

(Cal. Pen. Code § § 1377, 1378 (2023).)

Pursuing a Civil Compromise

Someone charged with a crime can pursue a civil compromise by appealing directly to the victim or by talking to the prosecutor (either of which should be done through a defense attorney) No matter which way you approach a civil compromise, it must be handled delicately to avoid further problems. Similarly, a victim who seeks compromise may raise the issue with the prosecutor. But victims, too, must take care. Someone who fails to follow the law could be arrested for compounding a crime (failing to report a crime or hampering a criminal prosecution in exchange for money), or extortion.

The Value of Legal Assistance

If you're charged with any crime, you should consult a criminal defense attorney. If you're the victim of a crime and you're interested in a compromise, you should talk to the local prosecutor or another attorney.

A local attorney can tell you if your case is suitable for civil compromise and, if so, guide you through the process, and advise you as to the appropriate amount. A person who attempts civil compromise without a full understanding of the rules risks antagonizing the victim or the victim's family, running afoul of the law, and even further criminal charges. An attorney can help you navigate the process and obtain the best possible outcome in your case, including a successful civil compromise and all the benefits that come with it.

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