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Our legal system is divided into two types of law: civil and criminal. In a civil case, a person brings a lawsuit against another person or business, usually to recover money damages. In criminal cases, the government brings legal action against a person believed to have committed a crime. The punishment in a criminal case can be as minor as a small fine, or as severe as prison time or even death.
Most crimes are categorized as either felonies or misdemeanors. A felony is the most serious type of crime and is usually punishable by imprisonment for more than a year. In some states, certain felonies are punishable by death.
Less serious offenses are often misdemeanors. The punishment is usually less than a year in prison, and an infraction is a minor violation that generally results in a citation or fine rather than jail time.
Criminal procedure varies depending on the state or court in which the person is charged. A criminal case is typically initiated either by a prosecutor filing a criminal complaint or through a grand jury indictment.
Generally speaking, someone can expect their case to proceed as follows:
If the defendant is convicted, they are sentenced according to sentencing guidelines and the discretion of the judge. The sentence may include prison time, fines, probation, drug or mental health treatment, or some other punishment created by the judge.
Defendants are generally not required to prove anything at trial. Because a conviction can lead to a loss of freedom, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person committed the crime. This is the highest burden of proof in American law.
Defense in a criminal case usually involves poking holes in the government’s evidence, identifying constitutional problems, and negotiating with prosecutors.
The U.S. Constitution provides several protections for those accused of a crime. The 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable searches by police.
Many of an accused person’s constitutional rights are included in the “Miranda warning,” which many people have heard on television or in encounters with police:
Criminal defendants also have the right to “due process,” which means the government must follow specific rules during a criminal case. The state must allow a person to defend themselves before it can take away their liberty, property, etc.
Due process encompasses:
If you’re being accused of a crime, there is a lot at stake. You’ll need someone on your side to protect your rights. Defense attorneys know the ins and outs of the criminal justice system and can help by:
Being charged with a crime is a serious issue, and having a dedicated defense attorney can make a huge difference in the outcome.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified criminal defense lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact an attorney in your area from our directory to discuss your specific legal situation.