Two categories of laws are intended to punish wrongdoing and compensate a victim of a bad act in the United States. These categories are called criminal law and civil law.
Criminal laws address behaviors considered offenses against society, the state, or the public. This applies even if the victim is not an individual.
A convicted defendant may be required to pay criminal fines or lose their freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison. It is important to note that whether an individual is charged with a serious crime or a minor offense, they still have the right to a trial and other legal protections.
Civil laws address actions that cause injury to an individual or a private party through civil lawsuits. Typically, the consequences for the parties found liable in these cases are monetary.
However, they may also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders.
What Is Criminal Procedure?
Criminal procedure is the legal process of adjudicating charges against individuals, called defendants, who are accused of violating criminal laws. The presumption of innocence means that, in all criminal cases, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.
The criminal procedure includes many issues, such as:
- Stop, detention, and arrest;
- Search and seizure;
- Booking and filing charges;
- Suspect or eyewitness lineup Identifications;
- Appointment of counsel, or the assigning a court-appointed lawyer;
- Plea bargaining;
- Criminal evidence;
- Criminal sentencing;
- Appeal; and
- Probation and parole.
What Happens During a Criminal Trial?
Every jurisdiction has its own procedural rules for criminal trials. Because of this, the timing and steps of a criminal trial vary widely.
A criminal trial generally has two phases: the guilt phase and the sentencing phase. During the guilt phase, the prosecution and defense present evidence to show that the defendant’s behavior did or did not meet all of the elements of the criminal charge.
The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant engaged in the criminal activity charged. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of proof in American law.
If the court or jury determines that all the elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant can be found guilty. The next phase is referred to as the sentencing phase.
During this phase, the court or jury will examine federal or state laws that provide the punishment range for the crime the defendant was convicted of committing. Many different factors will be examined in this phase, including:
- The defendant’s criminal history;
- Any aggravating or mitigating factors; and
- Other facts that are relevant to determining punishment.
Once both phases have been completed, the defendant will receive their official legal punishment. This may include prison or jail time, criminal fines, or both.
What Are Justifications, Excuses, and Mitigating Factors in a Criminal Proceeding?
If an individual is arrested and charged with a crime but they believe they have a valid legal reason for their actions or they should be exempt from criminal liability, they should develop a defense strategy for their case. Criminal defense strategies may include evidence that shows why the crime was justified and mitigating factors, or excuses, for the alleged criminal act.
If an individual can successfully establish a defense, they may be able to negate their criminal liability or significantly decrease their sentence. It is important to note that the availability of any defenses will depend on the specific facts of the individual’s case and the laws that apply in the jurisdiction.
A local criminal defense attorney will be familiar with these issues and can help an individual present a strong criminal defense strategy.
What Is a Defense Based on Justification?
One of the defenses that a defendant may be able to use is that their actions were justified. This defense may be available depending on the circumstances of the incident because some actions are only justified in certain scenarios.
Proving a justification may get the charges against a defendant dropped and clear them from any criminal liability. Examples of defenses based on justification include:
- Self-defense and defense of others;
- Defense of property where deadly force is not used;
- Crime prevention;
- In general, using deadly force is restricted to dangerous felonies under this defense;
- Necessity, which means that an individual causes harm to prevent even greater harm to society;
- For example, this could include breaking a water pipe to stop a fire from burning down a neighborhood; and
- Reasonable mistake of fact.
What Is a Defense Based on Excuses?
Another defense available to defendants is that they had an excuse for committing the alleged crime. An excuse-based defense, however, is not as strong as a justification-based defense because it does not negate the defendant’s wrongful act.
In a case of excuse, although the actions are labeled criminal, the defendant lacks moral guilt. This may eliminate or limit criminal punishment.
Examples of excuse-based defenses include:
- Duress or coercion: This is a situation where the defendant committed a criminal act under threat of immediate bodily harm or death;
- This defense cannot be used to justify homicide;
- Involuntary intoxication: This refers to circumstances where the defendant became intoxicated through no fault of their own;
- For example, if another individual roofied the defendant, they cannot be deemed responsible for getting intoxicated and committing crimes in such a state;
- Legal insanity: This arises when a defendant’s mental defect prevents understanding or control over their actions;
- This defense may be harder to prove than others;
- Entrapment: This is when the criminal act originated with an inducement from law enforcement;
- This can also be a fine-line situation because law enforcement undercover operations can be viewed as legal in many instances;
- Age: An individual’s age can also be used as a defense because some criminal statutes set a minimum age for criminal liability, typically 13 or 14 years old; and
- Reasonable mistake of fact: This may be used to show the defendant did not intend to commit a crime.
What Is a Defense Based on Mitigating Factors?
The defense of mitigating factors differs from justification and excuse because the defendant cannot avoid liability completely with this type of defense. If, however, there are mitigating factors present, a defendant may be charged with a lesser offense or receive a lesser sentence.
Typically, mitigating factors focus on a defendant’s mental state. This can eliminate the defendant’s specific intent to commit the criminal act. Examples of defenses based on mitigating factors include:
- Voluntary intoxication: This may negate some specific intent or premeditation to commit a crime;
- Diminished capacity: This defense is available in some jurisdictions when insanity cannot be fully established;
- This means that if an individual has certain mental defects, some intent to commit the crime can be viewed as out of their control;
- Reasonable and unreasonable mistakes: The defendant may have mistaken something that negates their intent to commit a crime;
- Heat of passion: This occurs when an individual commits a crime while provoked;
- This defense is often used to lessen a murder charge to voluntary manslaughter; and
- Imperfect self-defense: This defense can be used when a defendant applies deadly force because they made an honest but unreasonable mistake that such force was necessary for self-defense.
Should I Contact an Attorney to Help With My Criminal Defense Strategy?
If you have been charged with any type of crime, it is essential to consult with a criminal defense attorney who can help you develop a defense strategy for your case.
Your lawyer can advise you whether there are any excuses, justifications, or mitigating factors that you can use to limit your criminal liability.