Criminal Laws in North Dakota

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 What is Criminal Law and What Does it Cover?

There are two categories of law in the United States that are intended to punish wrongdoing and compensate victims for the bad acts of others, criminal law and civil law. Civil laws govern behaviors that cause injury to other individuals or private parties. The injured party files a civil lawsuit and, if successful, they receive compensation in the form of monetary damages, or other remedies including injunctions and restraining orders.

Criminal law governs behaviors that are considered offenses against society, the state, or the public, even if the victim is one individual. If an individual who is charged with a crime, also called a defendant, is convicted, they may face incarceration in a jail or prison, criminal fines, or both.

Every defendant has the right to a trial as well as other protections provided in the Constitution of the United States. A criminal conviction is a serious matter that can have life-long consequences. 

What is Meant by “Criminal Law Procedure”?

Criminal law procedure is the legal process by which criminal charges are adjudicated for individuals who are accused of violating criminal laws. An important concept in criminal procedure is the presumption of innocence, which means the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

Only the state or the federal government may bring criminal charges against a defendant. The basic step in a criminal case may include:

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

The burden of proof in criminal cases is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime they were accused of committing. Defendants have several Constitutional protections in this system, including:

Criminal procedure is best explained as a timeline that begins with the apprehension of the defendant and ends with the final verdict or appeal. There are procedural guidelines that govern the processes following a conviction, including probation and parole.

What are Some Common Criminal Charges in North Dakota?

North Dakota’s criminal statutes define felonies and set a maximum penalty for those crimes. The judge may impose any sentence up to the maximum listed. The felony classification, maximum penalties, and examples of each class include:

  • Class AA felonies, which are punishable by up to life in prison without parole;
    • Premeditated murder;
  • Class A felonies, which are punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $20,000;
    • Murder in the heat of passion;
  • Class B felonies, which are punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and up to a $20,000 fine;
    • Manslaughter;
  • Class C felonies, which are punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine;
    • Negligent homicide.

If the law in North Dakota specifies that an offense is a felony but does not specify a classification, the offense defaults to a Class C felony. When a judge in North Dakota sentences a defendant, they may impose one or more of the following:

  • A term of imprisonment;
  • Fines, fees, and restitution, or monetary compensation paid to a victim;
  • Restoration of damaged property; or
  • Commitment to a treatment institution or program.

In North Dakota, when a judge issues a sentence that includes a term of imprisonment, the judge will either execute or stay that sentence. execute means the defendant will be imprisoned. Stay means the imprisonment is suspended and the defendant will receive probation.

Probation may be unsupervised or supervised. Felony probation may last 5 to 10 years, depending on the defendant’s criminal history. For the majority of felonies, the court has the discretion regarding whether to execute or stay a sentence.

North Dakota law presumes that a Class C felony sentence should be stayed, known as presumed probation. However, the judge may override this presumption if warranted by the facts of the case. 

Certain offenses carry mandatory prison terms. For example, defendants convicted of armed felonies are required to serve their sentences in prison without the possibility of parole.

North Dakota has only 2 classifications for misdemeanor offenses, including:

  • Class A misdemeanors, which are punishable by a maximum of 360 days imprisonment and up to a $3,000 fine; and
  • Class B misdemeanors, which are punishable by a maximum of 30 days imprisonment and up to a $1,500 fine.

If the offense does not specify a classification, it automatically defaults to a Class A misdemeanor. The court may choose to place a defendant on probation without handing down a sentence. This is called deferred imposition of sentencing.

Deferring a sentence gives a defendant the chance to avoid having a conviction on their record by successfully completing their probation terms. After probation is completed, the court may set aside a guilty verdict or guilty plea and dismiss the charges. If the defendant does not successfully complete parole or violates the terms, the court may impose a sentence.

North Dakota also has a third classification of offenses, called infractions, that are punishable by fines up to $1,000. A common example of this type of offense is a traffic citation. It is important to note, however, that if an individual receives 3 infractions for the same offense within 1 year, they may be charged with a Class B misdemeanor and face jail time.

What are Some Common Criminal Law Defenses that Can Be Raised?

There are numerous criminal defenses that may be raised in many cases, depending on the circumstances. While not a comprehensive list, defenses may include:

  • Self-defense;
  • Alibi; and 
  • Mistake. 

Self-defense may be a defense in cases where a defendant was not the aggressor, the defendant reacted reasonably in response to a threat, and the defendant reasonably believed they were in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm. This defense may be difficult to prove, because it often relies on witness testimony, which may be conflicting.

If the defendant can provide an alibi, they may be able to show it was impossible for them to commit the crime in question, and prove their actual innocence. Even if an alibi does not prove the impossibility, it may create reasonable doubt regarding the defendant’s guilt.

Mistake is another defense that may be presented in criminal cases. A mistake of law, however, is not a defense because an individual may be charged and convicted of a crime even if they were not aware it was an offense. 

A mistake of fact, on the other hand, may absolve the defendant of guilt. For example, if a woman picks up another woman’s handbag, believing it to be her own, that belief would absolve her from the offense of theft because she did not intend to take someone else’s handbag.

Does North Dakota Have Any Special or Unique Criminal Laws?

Yes, there are laws and procedures that are unique to North Dakota. Prosecutors in the state have a time limit for filing criminal charges, called a statute of limitations. If charges are filed after this time, they may be dismissed. 

Prosecutors are required to file most felony charges within 3 years of the commission or discovery of the offense, with the exception of murder, which has no statute of limitations. There may be longer time limits for offenses such as:

  • Human trafficking;
  • Gross sexual imposition; and
  • Sex abuse crimes.

North Dakota uses an indeterminate sentencing system. This means that a judge sentences a defendant to a prison term or range and a parole board determines the defendant’s release date. Once the defendant goes to prison, decisions regarding the length of a defendant’s sentence are not longer under the judge’s control.

Do I Need to Hire a North Dakota Criminal Law Attorney for Help with My Case?

Yes, it is essential to have the assistance of a North Dakota criminal defense attorney with any criminal charges you may face in North Dakota. Criminal laws may be complex and the situation will be very stressful. It is in your best interest not to try and handle it alone.

If you are convicted of a crime, that conviction may affect yours and your loved one’s lives forever. Your attorney can review your case, determine what defenses are available to you, and represent you during any court proceedings.

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