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Supreme Court Seal
South Carolina
Judicial Department
South Carolina Bench Book for Summary Court Judges - Criminal Section

Introduction to Criminal Law

1. Distinctions Between Civil and Criminal Law

There are a number of distinctions between civil and criminal cases. First, a criminal case involves an offense against the state, county, municipality, the people in general, or the community. A civil case, on the other hand, involves a dispute between private parties concerning wrongful conduct which is not a crime. In some situations the same facts may create both a criminal action and a civil suit. For instance, a person may intentionally and unjustifiably strike another person and cause injury. A criminal charge for assault and battery may be initiated and also a civil suit for damages may be brought.

A criminal action can begin in two ways. First, either the victim of the crime or a law enforcement officer files a complaint under oath, asking that a magistrate issue a courtesy summons or arrest warrant, respectively. (For information concerning the courtesy summons, see CRIMINAL, Warrants, Arrest Warrants, Arrest without a Warrant.)  The warrant may then be served and the defendant brought before the magistrate or municipal judge. A courtesy summons is served on the defendant without an arrest and the defendant subsequently appears in court to respond to the allegations.  A civil suit is begun with the filing of a complaint which is served upon the opposing side.

2. Substantive and Procedural Law

Procedural law is the means or method of enforcing legal rights and obtaining relief or redress. It is the machinery which a court uses to administer legal proceedings.

Substantive law is composed of the law which is applied by the system of procedural law. Substantive law consists of the elements of the crimes (See the CRIMES and OFFENSES Section of this manual) or cause of action, the statute of limitations, and the rules of evidence.

The statute of limitations is an affirmative defense. This means that the defendant must bring this defense to the attention of the magistrate or municipal judge. The statute of limitations provides for a certain time in which a criminal proceeding may begin. If the criminal action is not begun within the specified time, the defendant can never be prosecuted for the crime. South Carolina does not have a general statute of limitations for criminal actions; however, in a few very rare instances, a period of limitations is incorporated in specific criminal statutes.

Substantive law includes the rules of evidence. The South Carolina Supreme Court has adopted the South Carolina Rules of Evidence. The Rules of Evidence are those rules by which matters of fact or allegation are established in all legal proceedings. The Rules of Evidence for courts in South Carolina are supplemented by the provisions found in Title 19 beginning with section 19-1-10. These rules and sections designate the accepted types of evidence, such as oral testimony, evidence in the form of documents, public or private records or writings, and certain types of exhibits. The rules control the development of evidence from the various possible sources, including pretrial statements or admissions, oral or written testimony or other admissible evidence, as well as any inferences or presumptions permitted to be drawn from that developed at trial.