Criminal law concerns the system of legal rules that define what conduct is classified as a crime and how the government may prosecute individuals that commit crimes. Federal, state, and local governments all have penal codes that explain the specific crimes that they prohibit and the punishments that criminals may face. Individuals who violate federal, state, and local laws may face fines, probation, or incarceration. Lawsuits against criminals are initiated by prosecuting attorneys who act on behalf of the government to enforce the law.
A crime is any act or omission of an act in violation of a law forbidding or commanding it. Most crimes are defined by statute, and they vary tremendously across different states and counties. The Model Penal Code (MPC) provides a good overview of the most common types of crimes, while the U.S. Code provides a list of all federal crimes. For a list of crimes in your state or local municipality, it is best to check your local penal code.
While specific criminal acts may vary by jurisdiction, they can be broadly characterized as “felonies” and “misdemeanors.” Felonies include more serious crimes, like murder or rape, and are usually punishable by imprisonment of a year or more. Misdemeanors are less serious offenses and are punishable by less than a year of imprisonment or fines.
Prosecution of Crimes
Unless a crime is a strict liability crime (meaning that no particular mental state is required), statutes typically break crimes down into two elements: an act (the “actus reus”) and a mental state (“mens rea”), such as knowingly or recklessly. In order to be convicted of a crime, a prosecutor must show that the defendant has met both of these elements. For example, larceny is the taking of the property of another with the intent to deprive them of it permanently. Thus, the defendant must have committed the act of taking the property and have done so with the mental intention to take the property of another (as opposed to believing that the property belonged to him).
It is not enough for a prosecutor to suggest that the defendant committed a crime. Rather, the prosecutor is required to prove each and every element of a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order for a defendant to be convicted. Police officers, prosecutors, and other government officials must also follow certain procedures in pursuing criminal activity. This is because all citizens have certain constitutional rights that the government must respect and protect. If these rights are not respected, it may prevent a prosecutor from obtaining a conviction in a case. The United States Constitution sets forth these rights and the protections that are afforded to defendants. For instance, if a citizen is arrested for a suspected burglary, police officers may wish to question the individual in connection with the crime. However, the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution provides protections against self-incrimination, and cases such as Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), set forth the particular warnings, called Miranda rights, that police officers must provide before questioning can occur. The Fourth Amendment provides rules for searches and seizures by law enforcement, while the Sixth Amendment provides a right to a speedy trial, a right to an attorney, and certain rights related to the cross-examination of witnesses. Finally, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution protects criminal defendants from receiving punishment that is unusually cruel or excessive. A violation of a defendant's constitutional rights can lead to the exclusion of evidence from a criminal trial, which can weaken or destroy the prosecution's case, or it may lead to the reversal of a conviction on appeal.
When are search and seizure rules triggered? Search and seizure rules apply when law enforcement conducts a search that invades a citizen’s legitimate expectation of privacy. The expectation must be objectively reasonable in the situation.
How many criminal cases go to trial? Very few criminal cases go to trial. Over 90 percent of all cases result in a plea bargain, in which the defendant pleads guilty or no contest in exchange for a lesser charge or lighter sentence.
Can I get an arrest off my record? In some states, law enforcement will eliminate an arrest from an individual’s record automatically if they are not charged. Otherwise, you may need to petition for a finding of factual innocence.
When do I need a lawyer for a criminal case? A defendant almost always should hire a lawyer to handle a criminal case. When so much is at stake, the knowledge and experience accumulated by a professional can make a huge difference.
Drug Crimes Federal and state laws strictly regulate and in many cases prohibit the manufacture, sale, transportation, and use of many drugs, from narcotics to medical marijuana and other substances.
Bail and Bonds A defendant can remain out of custody until their case is resolved by posting court-ordered bail as an assurance that they will appear in court when required.
Probation and Parole Probation can offer a more lenient alternative to a jail sentence, while parole allows a defendant to leave prison before the end of their sentence if they meet certain conditions.
White Collar Crimes White-collar crimes are offenses committed for financial gain and can include a broad range of crimes from certain types of theft and fraud to corruption and organized crime.
Theft Crimes Theft and property crimes include larceny, robbery, shoplifting, auto theft, and burglary, and the penalties vary widely, depending on prior offenses, the use of a weapon, and other factors.