In the United States, the two types of laws that are meant to punish wrongdoing or compensate victims of bad acts are known as civil law and criminal law. Civil law addresses behavior that causes some sort of injury to an individual or other private party, generally through the use of lawsuits. The penalties for any parties that are found liable for these acts are generally monetary, but may also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders.
Criminal law addresses behavior that is considered to be an offense against society, the state, or the public. This remains true even if the victim is an individual person. Someone who is convicted of a crime will be forced to pay fines, and may lose their 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.
Criminal procedure refers to the overall legal process of adjudicating claims for a person who is accused of violating criminal laws. The overall intention behind all criminal procedures is known as the “presumption of innocence,” which means that a suspect is considered to be innocent until they are proven guilty.
Criminal procedure generally includes matters such as:
The two bodies which can bring a criminal case against someone would be the federal government or a state government, which is why cases are stylized as US v. Someone or State v. Someone. Whether the accused is 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 their own set of criminal laws, there are certain Constitutional rights that apply to every defendant, no matter what that crime is or where it happened.
These rights include:
- Right To a Speedy Trial: The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial in order to prevent the accused from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without adjudication;
- Right To a Jury: Additionally, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury. While many jurisdictions allow the defendant to waive a jury in favor of a bench trial, in which guilt is determined by a judge, this is the defendant’s choice only. This right is universal with criminal prosecution only, as civil trials have their own rules governing jury rights;
- Miranda Rights: The result of a famous Supreme Court case, Miranda rights give the criminal defendant access to an attorney whether or not they can afford one in order to aid in their defense; and
- Protection Against Self-Incrimination: Also known as “pleading the fifth,” this specific Constitutional protection asserts that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against their own interest.
What Are Some Crimes That I Can Be Convicted Of?
Criminal acts are classified from less serious and petty offenses, such as simple theft, to the most serious of offenses such as drug trafficking and murder. Each jurisdiction as well as the federal courts have different ways in which to classify these crimes, from misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges to felonies.
Misdemeanor may refer to a considerably wide range of criminal offenses and violations, such as:
The following is a very general list of felony crimes:
- Property crimes, including:
- Drug crimes, including:
- selling; or
- trafficking drugs;
- Sex crimes, including:
- sexual assault;
- some cases of sexual abuse; and
- human trafficking;
- Violent offenses, including:
- White collar crimes, including:
It is important to note that there are certain offenses which may be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the laws of the state as well as the circumstances of the offense. Such offenses may include:
Some offenses, such as speeding and moving violations, are considered to be infractions. These violations only affect an individual’s driving record, and 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, which would be the juvenile justice system.
The type of crime that someone can be charged with largely depends on where the crime occurred, as was previously mentioned. In terms of whether the offense will be charged under state law or federal law, the best way to understand the difference would be to work with a criminal defense attorney in your area who specializes in both state and federal criminal law.
A local lawyer will be best, as criminal laws can vary widely by state. An example of this would be how criminal laws in South Dakota or North Dakota can differ considerably from those in other regions, such as Montana.
What Happens During A Criminal Trial?
Because each jurisdiction has its own criminal procedural rules, the steps and timing of a criminal trial can vary widely. However, 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 in an attempt 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, which is the highest burden of proof in American law, that the person committed the actus reus; or, criminal activity. They must have done this with the proper mens rea, or mental state or intent 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 or jury will consider state or federal law dictating the punishment range for the crime or crimes that the defendant was convicted of. They will consider many 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 are completed will a convicted individual officially receive their punishment, which generally includes criminal fines, prison time, or both.
What Does Beyond A Reasonable Doubt Mean?
As was previously mentioned, defendants are presumed to be innocent when they are arrested and charged with a crime. Before a defendant may be found guilty of any charges, the prosecution must prove that the defendant has committed wrong to a certain level.
The prosecution must convince a judge and/or jury that the defendant has committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The criminal defendant is not responsible for showing that they are innocent; many cases are won by the simple fact that the prosecution has not met its burden to show that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Civil courts require a plaintiff to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. This means the person who is suing must prove that there is a greater than 50% chance, based on all the reasonable evidence, that the defendant did the wrong that caused the damage.
The plaintiff can use testimonial and physical evidence to prove their case, and the defendant need not do anything to defend their case if the plaintiff fails to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. As a result, the defendant wins.
An example of this would be a trial for manslaughter in which the prosecution was only able to convince the jury panel that you had a 75% chance of committing the crime. Because the jury is 25% uncertain, the prosecution was not successful in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty. In order to qualify as beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury would need to be 98 to 99% sure. In this case, the jury was only 75% sure and as a result, you could not be convicted.
Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Reasonable Doubt?
If you are facing criminal charges, you will need to consult with a criminal lawyer. Your criminal law lawyer will help ensure that the opponent meets the difficult level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
They will help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific criminal laws, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.