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Criminal Law Basics

Most people's familiarity with criminal justice comes from movies, television, and books. But the need for legal advice will arise when we become personally involved in the criminal law system. Unlike civil cases, criminal cases involve jail or prison and can have longer-lasting life consequences.

This overview discusses various criminal law basics. It covers criminal statutes, criminal procedures, and the potential outcome of a criminal case.

Criminal Law Basics: Elements of a Crime and Criminal Statutes

Society determines what conduct is dangerous to citizens and what conduct damages society as a whole. In most cases, it then labels that conduct as a civil or criminal offense. The main difference between a civil offense and a criminal offense is the possibility of jail time. Criminal offenses are punishable by sanctions like fines or jail time. Common law, federal criminal law statutes, state criminal codes, and local government legislatures make up the criminal law system. The Model Penal Code also serves as a guide to state laws for establishing and defining criminal offenses.

Criminal statutes describe the type of conduct (actus reus) that is the criminal act. They also describe the mental state of mind or intent required (mens rea) before or during the act. In some instances, statutes also state the proper punishment and criminal charges. Legislatures determine whether a crime is an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony. More serious offenses trigger more serious punishments. There are also degrees of crimes, such as first-degree murder and second-degree murder.

Violation of a criminal statute can result in the imposition of fines, imprisonment, probation, community service, and other penalties. Punishments will vary depending on the type of crime and whether the crime is a federal crime or a state crime.

Criminal Law Basics: The System and Procedure

The criminal justice system encompasses the entire criminal process. This includes the people who play a role in that process. These include the accused, police officers, prosecuting attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, criminal court judges, and witnesses.

A person suspected of or charged with a crime is entitled to fundamental rights derived from the U.S. Constitution and key Supreme Court decisions. These include the right to an attorney and the right to a speedy jury trial. These Constitutional rights balance the government's interest to identify and punish criminal behavior and preserve the individual freedoms that characterize a democratic society.

The Outcome: How Might a Criminal Case End?

The outcome of any criminal trial depends on the crime charged. It also depends on the strength of the criminal prosecution's evidence, the legal validity of law enforcement and courtroom procedure, and the goals and strategy of the defense.

Some potential outcomes of a criminal case are:

  • A criminal investigation ends with no arrest
  • A person enters into a plea bargain with the government and agrees to plead "guilty" in exchange for some form of leniency
  • Before the case gets to a jury, the court dismisses it because the charges depend on illegally seized evidence
  • A jury finds the defendant "not guilty" because the prosecution could not prove the person's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt
  • A jury finds the defendant "guilty," and the defendant is sentenced to a long prison term

Don't Go it Alone: Call a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Understanding criminal law basics is just the beginning. If you are facing a criminal charge for a serious crime, a good criminal lawyer can help. An attorney may be able to negotiate a compromise with the prosecution for a less severe sentence. An experienced, local criminal defense attorney can give you the best options for your case and defend you at trial.

Get more legal information on our criminal law legal answers page.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

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