In the United States, there are two types of laws meant to punish wrongdoing or compensate victims of bad acts. These are known as civil law and criminal 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 certain other legal protections. Here is a short guide to how the criminal law system functions.

What Is Criminal Procedure?

Criminal procedure refers to the overall legal process of adjudicating claims for a person who is accused of violating criminal laws. The main idea behind all criminal procedures is known as the “presumption of innocence,” meaning that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty.

Criminal procedure includes matters such as:

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

There are numerous criminal justice careers an individual can choose to engage in, including:

  • Court clerk;
  • Court reporter;
  • Court register;
  • Criminologist;
  • Defense attorney;
  • Judge;
  • Forensic evidence scientist;
  • Immigration agent;
  • Legal assistant;
  • Legal researcher;
  • Paralegal;
  • Prosecutor; and
  • Police or law enforcement officer.

How Does Criminal Law Procedure Work?

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.
These include:

  • 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.

If an individual believes their rights have been violated due to police misconduct, they should contact a lawyer as soon as possible.

What Happens During a Criminal Trial?

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 looks 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.

What Kinds of Crimes Can Someone Be Convicted Of?

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.

The term misdemeanor may include a very wide range of criminal offenses and violations, including:

The following is a general list of felony crimes:

It is also important to note that there are certain offenses which may be charged as felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the laws of the state as well as the circumstances of the offense. These may include:

Some of these offenses may be eligible for expungement, or removal from an individual’s criminal record. The requirements and processes for expungement vary by jurisdiction, so it may be helpful to consult with an attorney for advice regarding how to have a conviction expunged.

There are also certain offenses, such as speeding and moving violations that are considered infractions. These violations only affect an individual’s driving record, not their criminal record.

There is also a separate category for juvenile crimes, which are crimes that are committed by minors. These crimes are adjudicated in a separate system, the juvenile justice system.

The type of 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.

Criminal laws can vary widely by state. For instance, criminal laws in South Dakota or North Dakota can actually differ drastically from those in other regions like Montana.

Metropolitan areas such as those in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Northern New Jersey may have a mix of criminal activity occurring. Other states may 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.

Do I Need an Attorney for a Criminal Law Issue?

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 a criminal defense attorney is your right.