In the United States, there are two types of laws meant to punish wrongdoing or compensate victims of bad acts. These are known as criminal law and civil law. Civil law is meant to deal with behavior that causes some sort of injury to an individual or other private party through lawsuits. The repercussions for any parties found liable for these acts are usually monetary, but can also include court-ordered remedies like injunctions or restraining orders.
Criminal law, on the other hand, is designed to deal with behavior that is considered an offense against society, the state, or public, even if the victim is an individual person. Not only can someone convicted of a crime be forced to pay fines, but they can also lose their freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison time.
But no matter if someone is being charged with a serious crime or a minor, the accused person still has the right to a trial, as well as other certain other legal protections. Here is a short guide to how the criminal law system functions.
There are only two bodies that can bring a criminal case against someone, the federal government or a state government. This is why you see cases stylized as US v. Someone or State v. Someone. Whether the accused is charged in federal court or in a state court depends on what crime they are being charged with and where the alleged offense occurred. Every state has their own set of criminal laws, but there are certain Constitutional rights that apply to every defendant, no matter what that crime is or where it happened.
- Right to a speedy trial: The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a speedy trial to prevent an accused person from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without adjudication;
- Right to a jury: The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to a trial by jury. Many jurisdictions allow the defendant to waive a jury in favor of a bench trial, where guilt is determined by a judge, but this is the defendant’s choice only. This right is universal with criminal prosecution only, as civil trials have their own rules regarding jury rights;
- Miranda rights: Stemming from a famous Supreme Court case, Miranda rights give the criminal defendant access to an attorney whether or not they can afford one to aid in their defense; and
- Protection against self-incrimination: Also known as “pleading the fifth,” this Constitutional protection says that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against their own interest.
Because every jurisdiction has their own procedural rules, the steps and timing of a criminal trial vary widely. But all trials are generally broken into two phases: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. During the guilt phase, the prosecutor and the defense present elements to prove that the defendant’s behavior has or has not met all the elements of that particular criminal charge.
The prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt (the highest burden of proof in American law) that the person committed the actus reus (criminal activity) with the proper mens rea (mental state or intent required by the charge). If the jury/judge finds that all these elements have been met, they can then declare the defendant guilty.
The next phase is known as the sentencing phase. As the name suggests, during the sentencing phase the judge/jury look at state or federal law dictating the punishment range for the crime or crimes the defendant was convicted of. They look at many different factors like previous criminal history, aggravating and mitigating factors, and other pertinent facts to determine the person’s punishment. Only once both phases are completed will a convicted individual officially receive their punishment, such as fines, prison time, or both.
Criminal acts are classified from less serious petty offenses like simple theft to the most serious offenses like drug trafficking and murder. Every jurisdiction and the federal courts have different ways to classify these crimes, from misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges to felonies.
What crime someone can be charged with depends on where the crime occurred. There can be some confusion, though, over whether the offense will be charged under state law or federal law. The best way to understand the difference is to seek the help of a criminal defense attorney in your area that specializes in both state and federal criminal law.
Many states also have unique criminal statutes which may seem unusual to us. For example, Massachusetts criminal law outlaws dueling and has two types of assault and battery with one relating to general assault and battery and one that is due to debt collecting. These laws are rather specific and may not be found in other parts of the country, so it is important to check your local laws to find out if your criminal actions fall under a specific statute.
All areas of the law can be complicated, but when someone is facing criminal charges the situation can quickly become confusing. Depending on the charges, receiving a criminal conviction can carry very serious consequences for the accused, including a permanent criminal record and loss of freedom.
An experienced criminal defense attorney’s job is to make sure you know all your rights, that they are being protected, and will know the best strategies to help you get the best outcome possible in your case. Remember, with criminal charges, access to an attorney is your right.