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The Basics of Criminal Law



The government passes laws that define federal and state crimes and their respective punishments. This body of law is known as criminal law.

Criminal law also lays out the rights available to the accused and establishes the framework for the criminal process. If someone accuses you of a crime, it is important to know your rights under the law and have a basic understanding of the criminal process.

What Is Criminal Law?

To understand criminal law, it is important to understand what a crime is. The way the law looks at criminal activity, crimes have two basic elements. These two components are a guilty mind and a guilty act.

A guilty act is the crime itself. This means someone violates a criminal law established by the government. A guilty mind speaks to the accuseds mental state and intent when committing the crime.

Furthermore, each crime has its own definition. For someone to be found guilty of committing a crime, the individuals actions and mindset must fit the crimes definition. For example, if someone is charged with the intentional murder of another person, then for the accused to be found guilty, he or she must have purposely or knowingly caused the death of another human being.

The threshold for proving that someone committed a crime is fairly high. As the saying goes, everyone under criminal law is innocent until proven guilty. This is true, but in addition to this, someone is only guilty if the prosecution (the party who is trying to prove that someone is guilty of a crime) can convince the court that the accused committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond a reasonable doubt means with absolute certainty.

Types of Crimes

There are two main categories of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors.

A felony offense is considered to be a more serious crime. Usually, states and the federal government consider any crime with a punishment of one year or more in prison to be a felony offense although there are some states that label any crime with a prison sentence as a felony.

Examples of felonies include:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Arson
  • Robbery

Less serious crimes are called misdemeanors. Most states consider a misdemeanor offense to be a crime that is punishable by less than one year in prison. Some states consider a misdemeanor to be any crime that is punishable by a fine or light jail time.

Examples of misdemeanors include:

  • Trespassing
  • Speeding
  • Vandalism
  • Public intoxication

Criminal Law Punishments

If found guilty of committing a crime, the court will issue a sentence during the sentencing phase of a criminal trial. A criminal sentence is the punishment a defendant (the person accused of committing a crime) receives if found guilty.

State and federal laws outline the different types of punishments that a defendant may receive for committing a crime. The following are some common types of sentences:

  • Fines: Fines are usually assigned to those guilty of misdemeanors, such as common traffic violations or shoplifting. The amount of the fine will depend partly on state law, as well as the sentencing judges own discretion.
  • Jail or prison time: A person is usually sent to jail or prison for committing a more serious crime, such as a felony offense. However, in some states, some misdemeanors are punishable by less than a year in jail.
  • Probation: Probation is a punishment issued in lieu of jail time. If a criminal can stick to certain rules, such as not committing any other crimes, then he or she can avoid jail time altogether. However, if the criminal violates his or her probation, the court may impose the original prison sentence.
  • Alternative sentences: Alternative sentences can mean a number of things, but in general, they are punishments that normally dont include jail time and are imposed on those guilty of misdemeanors. Alternative sentences include community service, as well as drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

Criminal Lawyers

According to criminal law, if you are accused of a crime, you will be provided with legal representation if you cannot afford a lawyer. The lawyer provided to you by the state is known as a public defender.

However, if you can afford a criminal lawyer, you will want to find one that has significant experience representing clients accused of committing the same or similar crimes as you. For example, if you have been charged with assault, you will want to seek out knowledgeable assault attorneys.

Finally, you will want to schedule an initial meeting with an attorney to make sure you are comfortable with his or her representing you. Important information to ask about includes the lawyer's educational background and his or her work history, as well as his or her views on your case given the information you have provided.