What is a Criminal Case?

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 What Is Criminal Law?

There are two categories of law in the United States which are intended to compensate victims of bad acts or to punish perpetrators. These types of law are known as civil law and criminal law.

Civil law is intended to deal with behaviors that cause injury to an individual or other private party, and they are compensated by suing someone in a lawsuit. The consequences for parties found liable for these actions are typically monetary.

Criminal laws are designed to deal with behavior that is considered an offense against society, the state, or the public. This is true even if the victim is an individual: if a person is shot, naturally, that is an injury to the person, but it is also an injury to the public because it frightens people and subjects them to the possibility that an errant bullet could hit them.

If an individual charged with a criminal offense, known as a defendant, is convicted of a crime, they may be required to pay fines and lose their freedom if they are sentenced to jail or prison time.

There is an overlap between civil and criminal law. If someone shoots you, the state will prosecute them for attempted homicide, and you can also sue them for the cost of your medical expenses, pain and suffering, and more.

Criminal law addresses topics such as:

Crimes may be broken down into general categories such as:

  • Crimes against a person: This includes homicide, assault and battery, domestic violence, robbery, and sexual assault
  • White collar crimes: E.g., tax evasion, racketeering, and securities fraud
  • Non-violent crimes: This includes drug crimes, driving under the influence (“DUI”), and some gun possession crimes (e.g., possession by a felon)
  • Crimes against property: For example, larceny, burglary, embezzlement, false pretenses, and petty theft

Most criminal cases are tried by a judge in the presence of a jury and may result in sentences under criminal law. Such punishments could include jail or prison time as well as fines.

How Do Criminal Cases Proceed?

All criminal courts follow the same basic procedures. Once a criminal defendant has been arrested and charged with a crime, the process goes as follows:

  1. Arraignment: An arraignment is usually the first court date in a criminal case. At an arraignment,
    • The defendant finds out what they’re charged with and what rights they have.
    • If they can’t afford a lawyer, the judge can appoint one for them.
    • The charges against the defendant are formally recorded and read before a judge.
    • Once the defendant knows what they are charged with and their rights, the defendant will be asked how they plead.
    • The most common pleas are guilty, not guilty, or no contest (nolo contendere).
    • Next, if the defendant is still in jail (in custody), the judge will decide whether the person should stay in jail until the case ends or if they can get out of jail. Usually, this means bail is set.
    • After the arraignment, there’s a pretrial period. During this time, the prosecutor and the defense are required to share information with each other (this is called “discovery”). Also, during this period, each side can file motions with the court asking the judge to decide what will happen at trial, such as what evidence the jury will be allowed to see and what will be excluded.
  2. Preliminary Hearing: At a preliminary hearing, the prosecution presents the main evidence that supports the charges they filed. At the end of the hearing, the judge decides if there’s enough proof for the case to go to trial.
  3. Pretrial Conference: This is a court hearing intended to resolve all technical legal issues before trial.
  4. Trial: In a criminal trial, the trier of fact (usually a jury) determines whether the defendant committed the crime. The standard used in criminal cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt;” meaning there is no reasonable doubt in the judge’s or jurors’ minds that the defendant committed the crime. This is the hearing in which evidence is presented to a judge or jury, and it is determined whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty. It starts by picking a jury.
    • On the first day of the trial, both sides will present opening arguments: summaries of the evidence or defenses they intend to prove during the trial.
    • Then, the prosecution presents its witnesses and evidence. The defense can ask the witnesses questions (called cross-examination).
    • Now, it is the defense’s turn. The defense does not have to present a case. If the defendant wants, they can testify.
    • They do not have to, and if they do not, the judge will instruct the jury that it cannot use the fact that the defendant chose not to testify against them.
    • Once both sides have presented their cases (or have chosen not to), each side will get to make a closing argument to the jury, summarizing their view of the case.
    • The case finally goes to the jury, determining the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
  5. Sentencing hearing: If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will convene a hearing to decide on the punishment for the crime(s). Judges have legal guidelines, called sentencing guidelines, to help them decide on a sentence. In a felony case, a probation officer will generally write a report with a recommended sentence. Victims and the defendant can also make statements.
  6. Appeal: This is the stage in which a defendant may argue that something was wrong with their trial, usually on a constitutional basis. Appeals can occur anytime after sentencing.

What Are Some Common Criminal Defenses?

There are many possible criminal defenses. They include:

  • Self-defense: The law will generally allow a defendant to present a self-defense justification if:
    • The defendant was not the aggressor;
    • The defendant’s reaction was a reasonable response to the threat, and
    • The defendant actually and reasonably believed they were in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • Intoxication: The defendant did not know what they were doing because they were heavily drugged or intoxicated. This defense only works if part of the definition of the crime requires that the defendant have the intent to commit the criminal act. Intoxication negates intent
  • Duress: This is the argument that a third party forced the defendant to commit the crime or else the defendant would be injured
  • Insanity: The theory behind an insanity defense is that the defendant should not be punished because they cannot form the required intent necessary to be convicted of the offense. Insanity is difficult to prove. It is also important to note that individuals who successfully plead insanity are not set free. Instead, these individuals are sent to medical facilities to be treated, and not released until their mental status is stabilized. Treatment for mental issues may take longer than the prison sentence the defendant may have received if convicted.
  • A strong, established alibi: Ideally, a defendant’s alibi would account for their whereabouts so that it would have been impossible for them to have committed the crime.

A defense that could excuse or justify their allegedly criminal behavior could prevent a criminal conviction or reduce a criminal charge.

Do I Need an Attorney for a Criminal Case?

If you are facing a criminal case, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.

An experienced criminal defense attorney in your area can determine whether any defenses are available to you based on the specifics of your case, as well as educate you on your rights and your state’s criminal laws. Finally, an attorney will represent you in court as needed throughout the criminal case process.


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