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What is Criminal Law?

Criminal law broadly refers to laws at the state and federal level which make certain types of behavior illegal and which punish these behaviors through imprisonment and/or fines. The two major types of cases are civil and criminal.

Civil cases deal with disputes between people regarding the legal duties and responsibilities which they owe each other while criminal cases are charges brought forth by prosecutors, who represent the government, for violations of criminal statutes. Civil cases sometimes allow for juries but many of these cases are decided by judges.

However, almost all criminal cases allow for a trial by jury and the defendant has the right to be represented by either their own attorney or by a court-appointed attorney if they cannot afford to pay for their legal representation.

Also, the burden of proof for convicting a defendant of a crime is also higher because the prosecutor has to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

What are the Sources of Criminal Law?

A crime is any conduct which a society and its government considers to be dangerous to citizens or damaging to society as a whole and it is punished through different types of sanctions which involve fines and imprisonment.

Most crimes are defined by the statutes which have been enacted by legislatures at the federal, state and local level to respond to different types of issues which affect their jurisdiction.

Throughout all stages of the criminal process, an individual who is suspected of or charged with a crime has certain fundamental rights which are derived from the U.S. Constitution as well as key court decisions.

Among these rights are the right to remain silent; the right to an attorney; the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures; and the right to a speedy jury trial. The purpose of these constitutional protections is to provide a balance between the government’s interest to make sure that criminal behavior is identified and punished and a need to preserve and promote individual freedoms.

What is the Role of Intent?

In order to convict someone of a crime, it is necessary to look at the “mens rea” which refers to the mental state of the individual at the time the crime was committed.

This means that it is necessary to establish what the defendant was thinking and what the defendant intended when the crime was committed.

This allows the criminal justice system to differentiate between an individual who did not mean to commit a crime and an individual who intended to commit a crime.

Intentional harmful behavior often leads to criminal charges while careless behaviors often leads to liability for negligence rather than criminal conviction. However, if the carelessness is extreme and very unreasonable, the defendant can be charged with criminal negligence.

Also, there are some crimes which are based on “strict liability” and they apply to certain acts, typically involving minors, for which the defendant can be convicted even if no mens rea or criminal intent was established.

What are the Different Types of Crimes?

The three major types of crimes are felonies, misdemeanors and infractions.

  • Felonies: These are the most serious type of crime; felonies are often classified by degrees and a first degree felony is the most serious. Felonies are crimes which are punished by more than one year in prison.
  • Misdemeanors: These are less serious than felonies and are punished by substantial fines and sometimes by prison terms which are usually less than one year.
  • Infractions: These are the least serious type of crime and typically punished by fines. Some examples of infractions are simple speeding tickets, littering citations, seatbelt violations, running a red light and not stopping properly at a stop sign.

What are the Differences between a Grand Jury and a Trial Jury?

In criminal law, both a grand jury and a trial jury consist of average people who were called for jury duty. However, a grand jury determines whether charges should be brought against an individual while a trial jury decides the facts of a case in the trial itself.

A grand jury’s decision is not the final step and prosecutors use grand jury proceedings as test-runs for trials but they take the grand jury’s decision very seriously. However, if a prosecutor strongly disagrees with a grand jury, they may ignore the decision.

In contrast, a trial jury’s decision is final and although the decision may be appealed, the process of appeal will be based on the trial jury’s determination of the facts.

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

The criminal justice system can be complicated. If you are accused of a crime or if you are a victim of a crime, it is very important to contact a local criminal law attorney as soon as possible.

Photo of page author Arvind Ravikumar

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 06-05-2018 01:59 PM PDT

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