Understanding Criminal Statutes

Criminal statutes are originally derived from common law, which developed from court decisions over time. The Model Penal Code (MPC) provides an overview of the types of crimes that exist in the U.S. legal system. The MPC influences state criminal codes and criminal procedures. 

When faced with a criminal charge, it always helps to do your own research. It can help you get some clarity about the statute under which you've been charged. Lawyers are trained to read statutes and determine the "elements" of an offense. But you don't have to go to law school to understand the elements that make up a criminal act.

You can find the elements of a criminal offense by breaking down the essential components of the corresponding criminal statute. This goes for minor misdemeanors to serious crimes like first-degree murder. This article will help you identify and understand the common elements that make up any criminal law statute.

Understanding Criminal Statutes: One Element at a Time

The U.S. Criminal Code (UCC) provides a list of all federal crimes. Federal laws and state laws can vary significantly for both criminal laws and civil laws. For example, a state may decide to criminalize being drunk in public, whereas the federal government may not. However, both state courts and federal courts are bound by the U.S. Constitution. Federal and state criminal statutes must adhere to the guidelines and rights established by it.

The following is the hypothetical text of a traditional burglary statute:

"The breaking and entering the house of another, with intent to commit a felony therein, whether the felony is actually committed or not."

There is one key question to ask in order to understand the elements of a crime: "If this didn't happen, would it matter?" If it matters, then it's an element. If it's an irrelevant detail, it's likely not an element. Here's a breakdown of the elements in the example statute above:

  1. The first necessary element of this law is "breaking and entering." After all, walking into a house by invitation wouldn't be a burglary.
  2. The second element is the "house of another." If you broke into your own house, it wouldn't be a crime.
  3. The third element of the crime is “the intent to commit a felony therein." If you broke into the house of another by pure accident or for some other purpose that didn't involve committing a felony, you wouldn't satisfy this element. Depending on the circumstances, you could be committing another crime, such as trespassing.
  4. The final element you can view as a modification of the fourth. By saying "whether the felony is actually committed or not," the law is clarifying that it is really the "intent" to commit a felony that matters. It is still burglary, regardless of whether the intended felony is committed or not. A person should not get away with a crime simply because they were incompetent and failed to actually succeed in committing a felony after breaking in.

Mens Rea and Actus Reus

In order to truly understand the elements of a criminal statute, you must also understand the meaning of mens rea and actus reus. Except for strict liability crimes, the criminal prosecution must prove the existence of mens rea and actus reus in order for a perpetrator to be guilty of a crime.

Mens rea refers to the required mental state that a person must have in order to be guilty of a specific crime. In the burglary statute above, the perpetrator must have “the intent to commit a felony therein." This is the mens rea element of the statute.

Actus reus is the actual physical act, or omission, that a person must commit in order to be guilty of a crime. The physical elements, or actus reus, of the burglary statute above consist of (1) entry, (2) as a trespasser, and (3) into a building.

How Understanding Criminal Statutes Can Help You

Understanding criminal statutes is crucial to understanding your constitutional rights and ensuring that you receive a fair criminal trial. Remember, the prosecution must have sufficient evidence to prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt in order for you to be convicted. Knowing the elements of the crime you have been charged with can help you understand whether you have a valid self-defense claim.

The earlier you're aware of possible evidence in your favor and can relay it to your attorney, the greater the chance that the evidence can be obtained and preserved for trial or use in plea bargaining. Also, there are common defenses that are often based on the elements of a crime, which may benefit you in a criminal case.

Leave the Heavy Lifting to a Professional: Call a Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Understanding criminal statutes by breaking them down into elements is crucial to understanding your rights and ensuring that you receive a fair jury trial. Criminal statutes aren't always written in a way the average person can understand. As unfair as that may seem, it is the way our criminal justice system operates. Get help from a local criminal defense attorney today. An attorney can represent you in criminal court or simply offer you some legal advice on how to proceed. For more legal information on your state's criminal laws, FindLaw provides a list of criminal laws by state.

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