Criminal Charges

Criminal law in America today is statute-based. The federal government and each of the state governments create and amend criminal or penal codes.

Use the links below to read about specific topics, or keep reading this page to learn about the basics of criminal charges:

In the United States, politicians often state they will be "tough on crime," and citizens often raise concerns about the crime rate. Crime represents a complex social problem. Trends in crime defy easy explanations.

Criminal and penal codes contain the criminal charges that the criminal justice system investigates and prosecutes. To a lesser extent, local governments also enact criminal codes through municipal and county ordinances.

Crimes vary between national, tribal, state, and local jurisdictions. Important distinctions include:

Each crime has its own set of elements that define it, as well as defenses that may apply under the circumstances. However, while each crime is different, there are several broad types of crimes that share features and defenses. It can be useful to examine all the crimes in a category in order to understand the overall approach and philosophy behind the criminal acts prohibited by lawmakers.

Each branch of government plays its role in the criminal justice system. The legislative branch passes the laws we designate as crimes. The executive branch enforces the laws by investigating and prosecuting crimes. The judicial branch provides for a fair trial of criminal defendants. It interprets and decides disputes over criminal law. It also has the authority to sentence those convicted of crimes.

Federal Crimes vs. State Crimes

Most criminal cases brought in courts today take place under state law. States have traditionally exercised police power through the executive branch. At the state level, the executive includes the governor, but may also include the attorney general. At the local level, the executive includes the district attorney (or county prosecutor) and the city attorney (or city prosecutor). State legislators pass the laws that become crimes. State and local judges hear criminal cases.

The federal government also addresses crime. Congress passes laws related to federal crimes and laws that support law enforcement at the state and local levels. Federal judges hear cases involving federal crimes. Federal crime often involves criminal conduct unique to federal programs or areas that involve multiple states. Some common areas of federal crime include:

  • Mail fraud
  • Hijacking
  • Bank robbery
  • Internet and computer crimes
  • Drug crimes
  • Hate crimes
  • Gun crimes
  • Racketeering (federal RICO offenses)
  • Tax evasion
  • Espionage
  • Counterfeiting

Federal and state authorities cooperate in the arrest of fugitives. They also share information regarding arrests and criminal convictions. The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is a federal database shared with federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement organizations that includes criminal records and warrant information from all these agencies.

There are areas of overlap between federal and state criminal jurisdictions. For example, both federal and state agencies investigate and prosecute drug crimes. Federal drug crimes often target major drug supply operations that operate in more than one state. Most drug crime prosecutions will take place under state and local authority.

Felony Crimes vs. Misdemeanor Crimes

Both state and federal governments classify crimes as felonies or misdemeanors. Felony charges generally represent more serious crimes. Felony convictions expose offenders to prison time. Examples of felony crimes include homicide offenses, sex offenses, aggravated assaults, robbery, kidnapping, embezzlement, and so-called white-collar crimes.

Misdemeanor crimes include lesser infractions and traffic offenses. These offenses expose offenders to jail time, but they often result in alternative sentences like community service and probation. Examples of misdemeanor offenses include simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespassing, petty theft, and traffic tickets. Alternative sentences may include options like a DUI school or program to avoid jail time on a first or second DUI offense.

The classification of certain crimes may vary based on the circumstances. For example, a first offense of driving under the influence or domestic violence may be classified as a misdemeanor. Commit the offense again or under circumstances that cause serious physical harm to another, and the offense may become a felony. Violent crimes can likewise be labeled a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the level of harm. Aggravating circumstances may raise the level of a crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Adult Offenses vs. Juvenile Offenses

Most criminal charges focus on the conduct of adults. When a person is under the age of majority (18 in most states), the law often does not label their misconduct as a crime. The juvenile justice system categorizes most juvenile offenses as delinquent acts. This relates to the goal of rehabilitating children who engage in misconduct.

Juvenile delinquency law includes a category of offenses that would not be illegal for adults. These "status offenses" include violating curfew, running away from home, and truancy (skipping school).

In some incidents involving the most serious crimes, the juvenile court can authorize treating the juvenile offender as an adult. Such decisions occur on a case-by-case basis. They are based on the nature of the offense and the history of the juvenile.

Classification by Degree and Penalty

Both federal and state governments also classify crimes by degree and penalty. They often use a numbering or lettering system to set out a hierarchy of criminal offenses. The penalty for the higher degree offense will be greater than the penalty for the lower degree offense. For example, a state may distinguish between first-degree murder and second-degree murder. First-degree murder encompasses planned and pre-meditated killing. It subjects one to life imprisonment or the death penalty, depending on the state. Second-degree murder includes voluntary manslaughter, often called killing with serious provocation, but without premeditation. The penalty may be up to 20 years in prison, depending on state law.

A similar classification system exists with misdemeanor offenses as well. For example, the crime of domestic violence may be a first-degree misdemeanor and expose the offender to up to 6 months in jail. Illegal possession of a small amount of marijuana may be a minor misdemeanor and result in no more than a fine.

Registration Requirements for Certain Crimes

Crimes of sexual violence and other sexual offenses usually require the offender to register their address after conviction. Registration requirements may be for a period of years or life, depending on the offense and state or federal law. The federal government hosts the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Website, which provides a comprehensive search tool to help police officers and citizens locate the registered addresses of sex offenders nationwide.

Individual states may have registration laws regarding other offenders as well. For example, Ohio has a statewide violent offender database available for law enforcement and limited public use.

The articles in the Findlaw Criminal Charges section provide further information on criminal offenses by category. They include links to statutes, with select overviews, penalty ranges, and resources on a number of crimes.

How Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help

If you have questions about certain areas of criminal law, the sections below should help you get a general understanding of crimes in that area. If you have been accused or charged with a crime, you should consider getting legal advice from a criminal defense lawyer. Indigent persons who are charged with a jailable offense may qualify for the appointment of counsel by the court.

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