Criminal Law Basics
- Criminal offenses are categorized under felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions or violations.
- Criminal suspects have constitutional rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
- The prosecutor has to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The criminal law system is more complex than seen on TV shows and in movies. Criminal law includes penal codes, police investigations, criminal procedures, and sentencing. Facing a criminal offense is intimidating. Understanding criminal law basics and finding a good defense attorney can help to reduce some of your stress.
If you have questions about the investigation in your criminal case, contact a criminal defense lawyer for legal advice.
Federal government and state laws prohibit certain actions and provide punishments for those who break the law. These statutes and penal codes define illegal activities in that jurisdiction. These laws also provide the procedures of the criminal justice system and sentencing guidelines for offenders.
Many states follow the model penal code for the state criminal codes. However, criminal laws are specific to each state and jurisdiction. In criminal statutes, offenses are broken down into required elements. These include:
- Physical acts or conduct (actus reus)
- The intent or mental state of the person (mens rea)
- The effect of the illegal act on any victims
Some criminal laws also provide a specific punishment, such as jail time, fees, probation, or community service.
Offenses are categorized by severity and come with different punishments. Most states have three broad categories to classify criminal charges:
- Felonies: These are more serious or violent crimes that may result in longer prison sentences. The most serious penalties include life imprisonment or sometimes even capital punishment.
- Misdemeanors: These are less serious offenses that may lead to up to one year in prison.
- Minor infractions: Violations or infractions like traffic or parking tickets are the least severe offenses.
Some jurisdictions further break down these categories and separate criminal activity into separate degrees. For example, there may be first-degree murder or second-degree murder. Other states use aggravated charges to differentiate severity.
Under the American criminal justice system, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The presumption of innocence comes from English common law. For a conviction, the prosecutor has to prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a higher burden of proof than under civil law. They should be found not guilty if there is any doubt about the defendant’s guilt.
You have fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Some of those constitutional rights include:
- The right to a criminal defense attorney, even when unable to afford one
- The right to a speedy trial to keep you from languishing in jail
- The right to remain silent
- The right to a jury trial
- The right to be free from unlawful search and seizure by law enforcement
The criminal law process often begins with the police arresting the suspect. After your arrest is the arraignment, where a judge may set a dollar amount for bail or release you on your own recognizance. With bail, you can put the money upfront or get a bail bond.
Under some circumstances, a judge may deny bail, and the accused remains in jail. This can happen with serious crimes where the suspect is a danger to the public. A judge can also deny bail for misdemeanors they think the accused will likely not show up for future court appearances or already has charges of failure to appear.
Next comes the criminal trial. There will be two opposing sides in the courtroom for a criminal case: the prosecuting attorney and the criminal defense attorney. The prosecutor works on behalf of the state. The defense attorney represents the defendant.
Both sides may enter evidence to support their cases and call witnesses to testify. The judge is in charge of the court proceedings and ensures both sides and the jury follow the rules of the criminal justice system. In a jury trial, the jurors decide whether you are guilty.
If you are convicted of a crime, the judge decides the punishment during the sentencing hearing. Punishment may involve paying fees or performing community service. For more severe offenses, penalties include probation or incarceration.
If you think there was a problem with the criminal proceeding or the judge’s decisions, you can file an appeal.
The outcome of a criminal case depends on several factors. These include the strength of the evidence, believability of the witnesses, courtroom procedures, and the prosecutors and defense attorneys. No two criminal proceedings are the same. There are several possible outcomes, including:
- The criminal investigation ends without your arrest
- You are arrested and enter a guilty plea for a lesser charge to avoid a trial and to get a lighter sentence
- The charges are dismissed due to an illegal search or evidence seizure
- You go to trial and are acquitted
- You are convicted and sentenced to prison, probation, fines, community service, or a combination of sanctions
One of the most essential parts of a criminal case is the role of the criminal defense attorney. A defense lawyer represents the defendant. The defense attorney can give the defendant legal advice to make sure they understand their legal options. An attorney can also investigate the criminal case and develop a solid legal defense. Your defense lawyer can even negotiate a plea bargain for the best possible outcome.
The criminal court system can depend on where the court is located. For information about your criminal case, talk to a local criminal defense lawyer.
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