This term means that in criminal trials, accused individuals are treated as innocent and did not commit the crime they are suspected of. This is what courts call the “presumption of innocence” and helps control abuses of the court system. A criminal defendant will only be subject to criminal liabilities if it can be established through evidence that they perpetrated the crime.
In other words, it’s not up to you and your attorney to confirm that you are innocent—this is already assumed if criminal charges are filed against you. Rather, the prosecution must provide proof that indicates you are guilty. Just because a person is brought to court does not mean that they are automatically guilty.
What Does “Standard of Proof” Mean in a Criminal Trial?
In a criminal trial, the “standard of proof” refers to the level of certainty the prosecution must establish the defendant’s guilt. The standard of evidence in all criminal trials is known as “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.” This means that the prosecution must establish the defendant’s guilt to the point where there is no doubt that they perpetrated the offense in question.
To establish a crime beyond a reasonable doubt means that all potential doubts about the defendant’s guilt have been removed based on the evidence. If any doubts remain about the defendant’s guilt, they cannot be found guilty.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is a much higher standard of proof than in most civil cases. In civil cases, the standard of proof is usually “preponderance of the evidence,” which means that a person can be held accountable only if “more likely than not” that they broke the law.
What Is “Criminal Intent”?
Most crimes can be broken down into two parts: the physical act and the defendant’s mental state at the time of the act. Criminal intent refers to the second part, the defendant’s mental state. To be found guilty, most laws require the defendant to have a criminal intent when the physical act was committed. Intent may be further split into general and specific intent.
For instance, theft (larceny) requires proof that the defendant physically took another person’s property and intended to deprive them of the property when they took it permanently. The first part describes the physical act, while the second part describes the criminal intent. So, if a person took a person’s cell phone on accident or as part of a prank but did not intend to deprive them of it at the time permanently, they cannot be found guilty of theft. This is because they lacked the criminal intent in the physical act.
Accordingly, a great deal of time can be spent in court trying to establish that a defendant not only physically committed the crime but that they also had the criminal intent to do so. This rules out most accidental acts.
Do I Have a Right to a Trial by Jury?
Normally, you have a right to a trial by jury if the crime you are charged with is punishable by more than six months of imprisonment. Offenses that carry a sentence of fewer than six months are usually deemed “petty” crimes—these do not always result in a jury trial.
The size of a jury can range from 6 to 12 members. Usually, larger jury sizes are reserved for more severe crimes. The jury’s final decision must usually be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant. If a judge determines that the jury may be biased, they may have the trial relocated to a different jurisdiction, and a new jury will be selected.
How Is a Felony Different from a Misdemeanor?
A felony is a more severe crime than a misdemeanor and results in more extreme criminal penalties. Felony charges are usually punishable by imprisonment in a prison facility for a time of greater than one year.
On the other hand, misdemeanors usually result in a sentence of less than one year in county jail rather than a prison facility. It is generally more challenging to clear a felony from one’s record than it is for a misdemeanor.
Violations punishable by only a monetary fine are usually not considered crimes but are classified as “infractions” (such as a traffic ticket).
Some offenses lie on the borderline of felony and misdemeanor and can be punished as either one, depending on the case. Also, some misdemeanors may result in felony charges if the charge is for a repeat offense (such as repeated DUI violations). Felony charges can also result in the loss of certain privileges, like the freedom to own a firearm.
What Are “Aggravating Factors”?
Aggravating factors are circumstances surrounding a crime that can convert misdemeanor charges into felony charges. For instance, assault is typically considered to be a misdemeanor. Nevertheless, assault may be prosecuted as a felony if committed against a minor, woman, or police officer.
Here, the aggravating factor is the execution of the assault against these distinct types of individuals. The assault charges then become filed as “aggravated assault,” which is deemed a felony. This applies to many other kinds of crimes as well.
Why Are Aggravating Factors Important?
If a person is convicted of a crime, any related aggravating factors could increase the severity of the punishment. For instance, if a person is sentenced to a term in prison, the sentence length could be increased. This would mean that the individual serves more years in prison than if there had not been aggravating factors. Or, if the defendant must pay a fine, the aggravating factors could significantly increase the fine amount.
What Are Some Examples of Aggravating Factors?
The list of what can be considered an aggravating factor is defined by statutes and varies widely by state.
Some examples of normally accepted aggravating factors include:
- Prior Convictions: In all states, a defendant with previous convictions for other crimes will face a harsher punishment than a defendant who has no prior convictions. For instance, California has its so-called “Three Strikes law.” This regulation establishes increasingly severe sentences for each subsequent conviction of a crime.
- Sophistication and Leadership Roles: A court can consider an offense aggravated if the defendant played a leadership role in committing the crime. Or, a court might also set a harsher penalty if the crime of which the defendant is convicted involved a high degree of planning or intricacy;
- Vulnerable Victim: In some states, a court can levy harsher penalties if the defendant’s victim was especially helpless. For instance, victims might be vulnerable because they trusted the defendant, and the defendant exploited that trust to commit their crime. Or the victim might have been an elderly person or a minor;
- Use of Weapons: Using or having a dangerous weapon, such as a firearm or knife, during the commission of a crime is very likely to be an aggravating factor when the time for sentencing comes;
- Hate Crime: If the offense was targeted at a protected class member because of their class membership, this could aggravate. So, if the defendant targeted a victim because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, color, sex, age, disability, or national origin, this can lead to harsher punishment.
Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Accused of a Crime?
If you have been accused of a crime, you have the right to a criminal defense lawyer. Many criminal cases can be complicated. You may need the help of an attorney for trial.
An attorney can help answer any question you may have regarding your case. Experienced criminal lawyers can argue for a reduced sentence or get the charges dropped if possible.