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What Is Criminal Law?

Definition of Criminal Law

Criminal law encompasses issues arising from a criminal offense. Criminal offenses are defined by federal, state, or local laws and can range from serious crimes like murder to minor infractions like speeding. 

Criminal punishments, also established by statutory law, vary by the severity of the crime. Minor offenses may only be punishable by a fine or a short term of probation. Violent felonies could result in years in prison, life sentences, or even the death penalty, depending on the circumstances and the jurisdiction.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees all criminal defendants the right to be represented by an attorney. In cases where a defendant may face prison or jail time, the U.S. Constitution requires the state to provide the defendant with legal representation if they cannot afford it. In lesser cases, such as traffic tickets, defendants have the right to an attorney but must pay for one themselves.

Criminal proceedings can be extremely complex, especially when involving multiple charges and multiple defendants. Anytime you are charged with a crime, especially a felony, legal representation is a wise choice. 

If you are facing criminal charges, you should seek legal counsel as soon as possible to protect your rights, understand the possible outcomes, and build your best defense. Many attorneys have years of experience in criminal court and can help you better understand your criminal case.

Terms to Know

  • Charge: A formal allegation of criminal wrongdoing
  • Indictment: A formal charge authorized by a grand jury
  • Arraignment: A pretrial proceeding in which a person accused of committing a crime is brought to court, informed of the charges, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty
  • Felony: A serious crime punishable by more than a year in prison
  • Misdemeanor: A crime with a punishment less severe than a felony; usually punishable by less than a year in jail
  • Infraction: A minor offense or administrative violation usually punishable only by a fine
  • Reasonable doubt: A defendant can only be convicted if the jury believes the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; the highest burden of proof in our legal system
  • Plea bargain: The process by which a defendant and prosecutor negotiate a compromise; the defendant typically pleads guilty to one or more offenses in exchange for a lighter sentence or dismissal of other pending charges
  • Miranda rights: The rights that an arresting officer must advise a suspect of before the suspect is questioned by police; Miranda rights consist of the right to remain silent, to have an attorney present during any police questioning, and to have an attorney provided by the state at no expense if the suspect can't afford one

For more legal definitions, visit the FindLaw Legal Dictionary.

Other Considerations When Hiring a Criminal Lawyer

Statistically, less than 10 percent of criminal cases actually go to trial. Part of the reason for this is that criminal defense lawyers often hash out favorable deals with prosecutors. Indeed, lawyers can often negotiate better plea bargains than the defendant could receive on their own. Plus, a good criminal defense lawyer can sometimes get a case dismissed via pretrial procedures.

Unlike on TV, a real-life criminal defendant does not automatically go free because the police did not read the Miranda rights at a specific time. Criminal defendants should only rely on legal information from a trusted source or a licensed criminal defense attorney. Even if criminal defendants decide to represent themselves, consulting an experienced criminal defense attorney could be the difference between jail time and probation.

Many times an attorney who specializes in criminal matters will do an initial consultation at a free or reduced rate. This meeting will allow you to share the facts of your case. The right lawyer can provide you with their defense strategy based on the facts, their knowledge of the local courts and criminal justice system, and your previous criminal record. They can also explain if expert witnesses could be helpful if your case ends up in a jury trial. 

At the end of the meeting, the attorney will also discuss the fee structure to handle your case. The legal fees could be a flat fee amount or one that requires a retainer.

If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, you may qualify for a public defender. Public defenders are licensed attorneys who are members of the state bar and specialize in handling criminal matters such as drug charges or DUIs.

If you or your loved one is charged with a crime, contact a criminal lawyer immediately to protect your rights, form a client relationship, and explore your legal options. A criminal defense lawyer can give you legal advice and guide you through important decisions related to your case. Finding the right criminal defense attorney to defend you can make all of the difference in your case.

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