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Criminal law is the area of law that deals with the identification and prosecution of people being charged by the state or federal government for an act that has been classified as a crime.

Background of Criminal Law

Throughout the history of civilization, humans have endeavored to devise rules and punishments to regulate behavior considered dangerous or harmful. Over time these rules were codified into laws designed to address offensive behavior deemed criminal in its nature.
 
Criminal behavior is considered to be so offensive that a person who commits a crime may have his or her freedom taken away or suffer capital punishment and lose his or her life.
 
Every state and the federal government have criminal codes — collections of statutes stating which behaviors can constitute criminal acts. The laws provide the elements of the offense and how a person convicted of committing the offence can be punished.

Constitutional Right to Due Process

Along every step of a criminal case, the law must be mindful that a person’s liberty and reputation are at risk and so great care and attention are given to criminal procedures like rules of evidence and sentencing procedures. Governments and courts constantly wrestle with questions of fairness for the accused versus public safety.
 
Criminal laws and procedures weigh the threat criminal conduct presents to the community against a person’s rights to due process. Due process recognizes an individual’s constitutional right to certain freedoms and protections, which include:

  • The right to know the crime he or she is accused of
  • The right to confront witnesses against him or her
  • The right to have a jury of peers decide the question of guilt or innocence.

Elements of a Crime

To ensure that a person accused of a crime receives due process, the law must clearly state what acts are criminal. Generally, a crime is defined by its specific elements. For example, of theft typically includes these elements:

  1. Property was taken, and
  2. The person took the property with the intent to permanently deprive the person of the property         

Criminal Procedure

Another area of criminal jurisprudence is criminal procedure, the rules that address processes such as:

  • How a suspect is arrested, fingerprinted, and jailed
  • Why probable cause is required and how it is established
  • How a criminal prosecution must proceed during arrest, indictment, arraignment, trial, conviction, and sentencing

Stages of a Criminal Prosecution

  • A crime is committed and is reported to or discovered by the police or someone files a complaint with the prosecutor’s office
  • Law enforcements investigates the case, reports its findings to the prosecutor
  • A suspect is arrested
  • Prosecutor files an indictment or information
  • Defendant is arraigned, at which time he or she enters a plea and bail is arranged, defense counsel assigned or defendant retains counsel
  • A bench or jury trial is conducted
  • Judge or jury decides innocence or guilt of the defendant
    • Defendant acquitted and released
    • Defendant convicted and sentenced

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