Since criminal law is such a broad subject area, navigating it can be an overwhelming task if you lack an understanding of the controlling laws and procedures. This section provides an introduction to the basic principles behind the criminal justice system, including police investigations, criminal trials, classifications of crimes, and the mental states required of certain crimes. You’ll find articles on self-defense and stand your ground laws, the differences between felonies and misdemeanors, the role of the jury in a criminal trial, the steps from being charged to going to trial, and how civil suits differ from criminal cases.
What does criminal law involve?
Criminal law covers some of the most series issues in society, such as murder, rape or robbery. Opportunities are available for criminal lawyers in both private and public practice.
In private practice, you can work as a defence lawyer for those accused of criminal offences. In public practice, you will be working for either the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) or for the Public Defender Service (PDS).
Criminal lawyers will usually work on the case from the beginning to the end.
This involves filing the case; investigation; visiting police stations and prisons; taking witness statements; checking medical reports; liaising with court personnel, police and probation officers; filing pleas and motions.
It also entails conducting the eventual trial, if that part is not being performed by a barrister.
Post sentencing, you might work on appeals at higher judicial levels. This will involve piles of paperwork and a huge amount of research.
Much of the activity in dealing with cases can involve: liaising with peers and judicial authorities from other jurisdictions; taking care of extradition claims; or dealing with the fallout of delinquency or criminal negligence.
Ancillary tasks might well include: following the money trail; battling with corruption and bureaucracy; monopolies and restrictive trade practices; and running through copious amounts of documentation.
What to Know
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:
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:
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.
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.
Criminal rules of procedure and evidence provide the playbooks for the criminal process. For instance, they dictate when warrants may issue; how pretrial, trial, and post-trial hearings are conducted; and what evidence is or isn’t admissible at trial. The rules also set timelines for court proceedings, such as bail hearings. The judicial branch for a jurisdiction writes and amends court rules.
The U.S. Constitution grants people accused of crimes certain rights to protect them from being treated unfairly. Some of these rights include:
the right to an attorney
the right to not incriminate oneself
the right to a speedy and public trial, and
the right to an appeal.
Each state also has a constitution which may provide its citizens with greater rights than those given under the U.S. Constitution.