Criminal Law

Criminal Law Basics

The criminal law system is far more complex than what you see on crime shows and movies. It involves the laws that define crimes, police investigations, criminal court procedures, attorneys, and other officers of the court.

Facing a criminal offense might seem intimidating, but learning more about criminal law and finding a good defense attorney can help to reduce some of your stress.

Defining Criminal Offenses

To better protect citizens, governments create laws to prohibit certain actions and provide punishments for those who break the law. Local, state, and federal governments create statutes or penal codes to define the actions that are illegal in that jurisdiction, the procedures of the criminal justice system, and guidelines for the punishments for people found guilty.

While criminal laws are specific to each state and jurisdiction across the nation, there are some commonalities involved in criminal law in general.

In criminal laws or statutes, offenses are broken down into required elements:

  • The actual physical act or conduct
  • The intent or mental state of the person who acted
  • The effect of the illegal act on any victims

Some criminal laws also provide a specific punishment, such as community service, fees, or even time in prison.

Categories of Criminal Offenses

Offenses are categorized by severity and come with different punishments. Most states have three broad categories to classify criminal offenses:

  • Felonies are more serious or violent offenses that may result in longer prison sentences, including life without the possibility of parole or sometimes even capital punishment.
  • Misdemeanors are less serious offenses, which may lead to up to one year in prison.
  • Violations or infractions, such as traffic or parking tickets, are the least serious offenses. In states where marijuana is decriminalized but not legalized, a person may receive a violation for using or possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Some jurisdictions break down these categories even further and separate criminal activity into separate degrees by using numbers or letters to differentiate the severity.

State versus Federal Laws

It's interesting to note that while state legislatures have the power to prohibit any acts, state laws do not trump the federal laws of the United States. However, with the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in many states, federal agencies have chosen not to enforce some federal marijuana. They could, of course, change their minds.

Rights of the Accused

Simply being charged with a crime does not strip you of your fundamental rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Some of those include the right to a criminal defense attorney even when unable to afford one and the right to a speedy trial to keep you from languishing in jail.

Being charged with a crime also does not mean you are automatically guilty of committing that crime. The U.S. criminal system deems a defendant innocent until proven guilty. A criminal defense lawyer can help protect your rights, ensuring that law enforcement does not take advantage of you while your case goes through the system.

How the Criminal Law System Works

The criminal law process often begins with the accused offender being arrested by the police after an investigation. After your arrest, a judge typically sets a dollar amount that you must pay for bail. Then you may post bail yourself, or a bail bondsman may post bail on your behalf.

Under some circumstances, a judge may deny bail, and the accused remains in jail until the next proceeding. This often is the case for violent offenses murder or other violent felonies. A judge can also deny bail for misdemeanors they think the accused is likely to not show up for future court appearances or already has charges of failure to appear.

Next comes the legal proceedings, which may take the form of a hearing or the actual criminal trial. In the courtroom for a criminal case will be two opposing teams, the prosecuting attorneys and the criminal defense attorneys.

Both sides may enter evidence to support their cases and call witnesses to testify. Opposing counsel can question these witnesses as well. The judge is in charge of the court proceedings and ensures both sides and the jury follow the rules of the criminal justice system.

If you are convicted of a crime, there is a sentencing proceeding, where the judge decides the punishment, which will likely depend on the circumstances of the case.

For some, the punishment may involve paying fees or performing community service. For others, it may include probation or incarceration. For those who receive a prison sentence, early release for good behavior might be possible. Once released, you will report to a parole officer for a specific amount of time. Failure to comply with the terms of parole might lead to going back to prison.

Possible Outcomes of Criminal Proceedings

The outcome of a criminal case depends on a number of factors, including the strength of the evidence, the character and believability of the witnesses, the validity of the police investigation, courtroom procedures, and the skills of the prosecutors and defense attorneys. No two criminal proceedings are the same, and a number of different outcomes are possible. For example:

  • The criminal investigation ends without the suspect being arrested.
  • The suspect is arrested and enters a guilty plea for a lesser charge to avoid a trial and receive a lighter sentence.
  • The charges are dismissed due to an illegal search or evidence seizure, breaches in the evidentiary chain, procedural missteps that make prosecution difficult, or the accused cooperates with police to lead to the arrest of another suspect.
  • The accused goes to trial and is acquitted.
  • The accused is convicted and sentenced to prison, probation, fines, community service, or a combination of penalties.

Because there are so many factors at play after someone is arrested, the basics of criminal law are actually quite complex and best handled by an experienced defense attorney.