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 What is Criminal Law?

There are two main categories of laws in the United States which are meant to punish an individual for their wrongdoing or to compensate a victim of a bad act, called criminal law and civil law. Civil laws handle behaviors which cause an injury to an individual or a private party using lawsuits.

The consequences for a party who is found liable for civil wrongs are typically monetary. However, there may also be other court-ordered remedies, including injunctions or restraining orders.

On the other hand, criminal laws are intended to handle behaviors which are considered offenses against the public, society, or the state, even if the victim of the crime is not an individual. A defendant who is convicted of a crime may be ordered to serve time in jail or prison or may be required to pay criminal fines.

What is Criminal Procedure?

Criminal procedure is the legal process for adjudicating a claim that an individual has violated a criminal law. It is important to note that a defendant is presumed to be innocent until they are proven guilty.

Criminal procedure includes many aspects of criminal law, including:

  • Stop, detention, and arrest;
  • Search and seizure;
  • Booking and filing charges;
  • Suspect or eyewitness lineup Identifications;
  • Appointment of counsel, or assigning a court-appointed lawyer;
  • Plea bargaining;
  • Criminal evidence;
  • Trial;
  • Criminal sentencing;
  • Appeal; and
  • Probation and parole.

What is Criminal Defense?

An individual who has been accused of committing a crime is referred to as the defendant. As previously noted, a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

If there is a defense which justifies or excuses the defendant’s criminal behavior, their charges may be reduced or they may avoid a conviction.

What Types of Criminal Defenses May be Available?

There are several categories of criminal defenses which may be available to a defendant in their case, including:

  • Self-defense;
  • Duress or necessity;
  • Insanity;
  • Intoxication;
  • Alibi;
  • Entrapment; and
  • Mistake.

What is Self-Defense?

The law will generally allow a defendant to present a self-defense justification if:

  • The defendant was not the aggressor;
  • The defendant’s reaction was a reasonable response to the threat; and
  • The defendant actually and reasonably believed that they were in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.

This may be challenging to prove, especially if conflicting witness testimony is presented. If self-defense can be proven, however, it will absolve the defendant of criminal liability.

What is Duress or Necessity?

The majority of states recognize duress and necessity defenses to crimes which were committed under a threat of serious bodily injury or death. For example, if a defendant forces another individual to steal a car by threatening them with a gun to the head, the defendant may plead duress as a defense to the charge of automobile theft.

Necessity, which is also referred to as the lesser harm defense, is fairly uncommon. For example, this defense may be used if the defendant breaks into a mountain cabin to prevent themself from freezing to death in sub-zero temperatures.

A defendant will have a complete defense if they can show duress or necessity.

What is Insanity?

A mental disease or defect is typically not a defense. However, if a defendant suffered from a severe mental illness or a defect at the time the offense was committed, an insanity defense may prevent them from serving time in prison.

The theory behind an insanity defense is that the defendant should not be punished because they are not able to form the required intent necessary to be convicted of the offense. Insanity is difficult to prove, however.

This defense requires clear and competent expert testimony of the defendant’s mental issues. It is also important to note that individuals who successfully plead insanity are not set free.

Instead, these individuals are sent to medical facilities to be treated and they are not released until their mental status is stabilized. Treatment for mental issues may take longer than the prison sentence the defendant may have received if they were convicted.

In some states, a defendant can plead diminished capacity. This means that there are some mental diseases and defects which do not affect an individual sufficiently enough to make them insane, but the law still recognizes them.

A successful presentation of a diminished capacity defense typically results in lesser punishment or a reduction of the charges, such as from murder to manslaughter.

What is Intoxication?

Intoxication typically does not provide a defendant with a defense to criminal charges, especially when the defendant voluntarily became intoxicated. The law holds individuals responsible for their choice to become intoxicated, even if they would not have committed the offense if they had been sober.

In certain cases, if the defense can show that the influence of drugs or alcohol made the defendant unable to be found guilty of intentionally committing an offense because of their diminished capacity, intoxication may provide justification for a reduced charge. In other situations, intoxication may provide a total defense if a defendant was intoxicated involuntarily.

For example, if a defendant committed an offense as a result of being drugged unknowingly or being forced to consume a large amount of alcohol, they would be considered involuntarily intoxicated.

What is an Alibi?

If an alibi is believed by a jury, it provides a criminal defense as well as evidence of an assertion of actual innocence. Ideally, a defendant’s alibi would account for their whereabouts in such a way that it would have been impossible for them to have committed the crime.

At the very least, an alibi can create reasonable doubt regarding the defendant’s guilt. For example, if a defendant is charged with a robbery in Missouri but they can prove they were in Texas at the time of the crime, it will likely prevent their conviction.

What is Entrapment?

Law enforcement officers are prohibited from inducing or persuading an individual to commit a criminal offense they had no previous intention to commit. If a defendant can show that their arrest was the result of entrapment, they cannot be convicted of the crime even if they did commit it.

The issue with this type of defense, however, is that it typically depends upon the testimony of the defendant against the testimony of the law enforcement officer. A jury will likely give more weight to the testimony of the law enforcement officer over the testimony of the criminal defendant, especially when the defendant has a history of crime.

What is Mistake?

There are two types of mistakes in legal cases, a mistake of law and a mistake of fact. With a mistake of law, an individual does not know about or misunderstands a law.

A mistake of law, however, does not justify or excuse criminal behavior. Every individual is responsible for being aware of and abiding by the state and federal laws.

A defendant may be convicted for an action that they were not aware was against the law. A mistake of fact, on the other hand, may serve as an effective defense.

For example, if a defendant accidentally picks up someone else’s bag at the airport because they believed it to be their own, they may avoid a conviction of theft if they can show that they took the wrong bag by mistake.

Should I Hire a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

If you are suspected of committing a crime or have been charged with committing a crime, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your attorney can assist you with asserting a defense which is available in your case and will represent you during court appearances.

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