In the United States, there are two different types of laws which are intended to punish wrongdoing, as well as compensate victims of those wrongdoings. These two types are known as criminal law and civil law. Civil law is intended to address illegal behavior that causes some sort of injury to a person or other private party through the use of lawsuits.
The repercussions for any parties that are found to be liable for these acts are generally monetary, but they can also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions and/or restraining orders.
Criminal law, however, is designed to address illegal behavior that is considered to be an offense against:
- The state; or
- The public, which remains true even if the victim is an individual person.
Not only can someone who is convicted of a crime be forced to pay criminal fines, they may also lose their personal freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison time. Regardless of whether someone is being charged with a serious crime or a minor crime, the accused still has the right to a trial as well as certain other legal protections.
Additionally, there are only two bodies that can bring a criminal case against someone: the federal government, or a state government. This is why cases are stylized as US v. Someone, or State v. Someone. Whether the accused is being charged in federal court or in a state court largely depends on what crime they are being charged with, as well as where the alleged offense occurred.
While every state has its own set of criminal laws, there are specific Constitutional rights that apply to every defendant no matter what that crime is or where it happened. These rights include:
- The Right To a Speedy Trial: The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a speedy trial, in order to prevent an accused person from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without arbitration;
- The Right To a Jury Trial: Additionally, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury. Many jurisdictions will allow the defendant to waive a jury in favor of a bench trial, in which guilt is determined by a judge and not a jury. However, this is the defendant’s choice only. Additionally, this right is universal with criminal prosecution only, as civil trials have their own rules which govern jury rights;
- Miranda Rights: The result of a famous Supreme Court case, Miranda rights provide the criminal defendant with 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 during their trial.
What Are Mala Prohibita Crimes?
American criminal law includes laws that have existed in the United States since it was a group of colonies under British rule. These laws have categorized crimes into two different categories: mala in se, and mala prohibita. Mala in se crimes are crimes against society, such as:
- Murder; and
The Latin term “mala prohibita” refers to crimes being considered wrong because the underlying actions are prohibited. What makes it prohibited would be a statute, as opposed to a moral repugnance to the action. In short, mala prohibita crimes are considered to be victimless crimes.
The types of crimes that are classified as mala prohibita crimes include, but may not be limited to:
- Copyright infringement;
- Drug use;
- Government criticism;
- Indecent exposure;
- White collar crimes;
- Petty theft;
- Parking violations; and
- Disrupting funeral services.
The classification of mala prohibita is not generally important in terms of sentencing; whether a crime is considered to be a malum prohibitum crime or malum in se crime does not generally matter in terms of sentencing. Rather, more consideration is placed on a defendant’s:
- Criminal history;
- Actions behind committing the crime, or their reason for committing the crime;
- Type of crime committed, such as a misdemeanor versus a felony; and
- Degree of committing the offense.
Rather, the mala prohibita crime classification has more bearing on whether a crime is considered to be a felony or a misdemeanor. It is important to note that this is something that is decided before anyone is charged with that crime.
Generally, crimes that are considered to be mala prohibita do not carry the same type of tough sentences that mala in se crimes do. They generally carry misdemeanor sentences with fines, as well as less than one year in jail.
What Happens During A Criminal Trial?
Because every jurisdiction has its own procedural rules, the exact steps and timing of a criminal trial vary widely. Generally speaking, all trials are broken into two phases: the guilt phase, and the sentencing phase. During the guilt phase, both the prosecutor and the defense present elements to prove that the defendant’s behavior has or has not met all of the elements of that specific criminal charge.
The prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest burden of proof in American law, that the person committed the actus reus, or criminal activity. This must be with the proper mens rea, or mental state or intent that is required by the charge. If the jury or judge finds that all of these elements have been met, they can then declare the defendant guilty.
During the sentencing phase, the judge and jury consider state or federal laws dictating the punishment range for the crime or crimes that the defendant was convicted of. They also consider many other different factors, such as:
- Previous criminal history;
- Aggravating and mitigating factors; and
- Other relevant facts in order to determine the person’s punishment. Only once both phases have been completed will a convicted person officially receive their punishment, such as fines, prison time, and/or both.
Criminal acts are classified from less serious petty offenses, such as simple theft, to the most serious offenses such as drug trafficking and murder. Every jurisdiction, as well as the federal courts, have different ways in which to classify these crimes. Exactly what crime someone can be charged with largely depends on where the crime occurred.
Because criminal laws can vary widely by state, some states may have unique criminal statutes which may seem unusual compared to others. An example of this would be how Massachusetts criminal law outlaws dueling, and also has two types of assault and battery.
One type is general assault and battery, and one type is associated with debt collecting. These laws are considerably specific, and may not be found in other parts of the country. This is why it is important to check your local laws in order to determine whether your criminal actions are covered by a specific statute.
Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Mala Prohibita Crimes?
If you are facing a criminal charge for a mala prohibita crime, such as indecent exposure or tax fraud, you should contact a local criminal lawyer. Your criminal defense attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.