Criminal law is a broad area of law that covers issues arising from police arrest and investigation, based on the suspicion of criminal activity. Criminal law addresses indictments, accusations, and criminal pleas as well as trials. Additionally, criminal law addresses problems associated with probation or parole, as well as requests for expunging or sealing criminal records. Crimes may be broken down into many general categories such as:
- Crimes Against a Person: This includes homicide, assault and battery, domestic violence, robbery, and sexual assault;
- White Collar Crimes: Such as tax evasion, racketeering, and securities fraud;
- Non Violent Crimes: this includes drug crimes, driving under the influence (“DUI”), gun possession, and drug trafficking; and
- Crimes Against Property: Such as larceny, burglary, embezzlement, false pretenses, and petty theft.
A criminal case is a type of court proceeding in which the defendant is tried for conduct that is considered to be illegal according to the state’s legislature, or the government. Criminal cases generally begin after the person is arrested and informed of their charges, usually at a hearing known as an indictment. In regards to criminal cases, the defendant is always considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a state prosecutor.
Most criminal cases are tried by a judge in the presence of a jury, and may result in sentences under criminal law. Such sentences could include jail time as well as fines.
How Do Criminal Cases Proceed?
Once a criminal defendant has been arrested or charged for a crime, all criminal courts follow the same procedures. This process goes as follows:
- Arraignment: This is where the defendant appears in court, and the charges against the defendant are formally recorded and read before a judge;
- Preliminary Hearing: During this evidentiary hearing, the district attorney must prove to the judge that there is strong evidence to charge the defendant for the crime at hand;
- Pretrial Conference: This is a court hearing intended to resolve all issues before going into a formal trial;
- Plea Hearing: A plea hearing is a hearing in which the defendant enters a plea of either guilty, or not guilty. At this stage the prosecutor will offer some type of agreement to the defendant;
- Trial: This is a hearing in which evidence is presented to a judge or jury, and it is determined whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt;
- Sentencing: Sentencing refers to a court’s decision regarding the penalties placed on the defendant for crimes that were established to have been committed; and
- Appeal: This is the stage in which a defendant may appeal their case. Appeals can occur anytime after sentencing.
Is a Criminal Case the Same as a Civil Case?
In short, no. One of the biggest differences between the criminal justice system and the civil justice system is that criminal cases involve the state filing a claim against an individual. Civil cases generally involve civil disputes between two private citizens, or between businesses. The laws, punishments, and burden of proof also differ between criminal cases and civil cases.
An example of this would be how prison is a potential punishment in certain criminal cases, but civil cases do not punish the accused with incarceration. However, a civil lawsuit could follow a criminal case, such as in a wrongful death or police misconduct case.
As previously mentioned, the burden of proof differs between criminal cases and civil cases. Burden of proof refers to the obligation to present evidence in regards to the lawsuit or criminal charge. The burden of proof is much higher in criminal cases than civil cases, as the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. All that is needed to find someone liable in a civil case is typically just a preponderance of evidence that more than fifty percent of the evidence points favors one party over the other.
What Are Some Common Criminal Defenses?
Available defenses to criminal cases largely depend on the categorization of the crime. In most states, criminal cases are categorized according to the seriousness of the crime committed. Citations and misdemeanors are generally the lowest in severity, resulting in fines and/or a short stay in jail.
Felony crimes are considered to be the most severe and could be punished by a longer sentence spent in prison, as opposed to a local jail. As previously mentioned, crimes may also be classified according to the nature of their conduct (crimes against a person, crimes against property, etc.).
For most crimes against a person, self-defense is a commonly utilized legal defense. This is especially true for cases that involve fighting or other altercations. Other common criminal defenses include:
- Entrapment; and/or
- A strong, established alibi.
As previously mentioned, a criminal defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A defense which could excuse or justify their 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 absolutely 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 entirety of the criminal case process.