Overview of Criminal Law
Criminal law is the area of law that pertains to crimes. “A ‘crime’ is any act or omission (of an act) in violation of a public law forbidding or commanding it.” “Crimes are considered offenses against the state, or society as a whole.” Generally, crimes are established by the local, state, and federal governments. There are many different types of crimes. Crimes usually are considered misdemeanors or felonies. Misdemeanors are the less serious crimes such as jaywalking or petty theft, and they are punishable by less than a year in prison or another penalty. Felonies, on the other hand, are the much more serious crimes that include such crimes as murder, rape, arson, burglary, assault, and robbery. The penalties for felonies range from over a year in prison to death, depending on the crime. “Most crimes consist of two elements: an act, or “actus reus,” and a mental state, or “mens rea.” For instance, for a person to be found guilty of murder, he or she has to have committed a murder (actus reus), and he or she has to have had the specific intent to commit murder (mens rea).
When a crime takes place, an arrest of that person can occur, and a police report follows the arrest. The prosecutor, who represents the government, will read the contents of the police report and determine whether or not the person that was arrested can be charged with a crime or alternatively, the prosecutor will go before a grand jury and ask them whether criminal charges should be filed (indictment). Prosecutors have discretion in determining whether or not to file charges against a person and what particular charges to file. If a prosecutor chooses to file charges against the person, the next step will be for the judge to conduct a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed against the accused. If the case is based on a grand jury indictment, then no preliminary hearing is necessary.
A person who is charged with a crime is the defendant, and he will be prosecuted by the prosecutor. If a case against a defendant goes to trial, the prosecutor must prove “each and every element of the crime” to the judge or jury “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a very high standard, due to the serious possible ramifications of being convicted of a crime (jail time, fines, death, etc.). A defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and he or she always has the right to defend him or herself. For instance, if a defendant is charged with murder, he or she could possibly use self-defense as a defense. He or she did not murder someone because he or she lacked the intent to murder someone (mens rea), as he or she was defending him or herself from possible harm.
A person that is charged with a crime should hire a criminal defense attorney. If he or she cannot afford an attorney the court can appoint one.