Criminal law refers to the government’s prosecution of a person who has committed an act in violation of a law. For the most part, crimes require both a physical act (known as the “actus reus”) and a certain mental state (known as the “mens rea”). The particulars of what constitutes a crime vary considerably from state to state. The laws are enforced by threat of punishment ranging from fines to community service to imprisonment.
Crimes encompass a wide variety of illegal behaviors. Some crimes are against another person such as assault, robbery, kidnapping, murder, and rape. Some crimes are against property such as arson, burglary, and larceny. Crimes such as accessory, attempt, and conspiracy are called “inchoate” offenses because they involve acts that lead to the commission of an additional crime.
“Misdemeanors” are less serious offenses such as petty theft, jaywalking, trespassing, and speeding. Misdemeanors are usually handled by special courts with reduced procedures and are punishable by imprisonment of less than one year. If imprisonment is imposed, people convicted of misdemeanors are sentenced to local, city, or county jail. In states that have adopted “three strikes” laws, a misdemeanor is not counted as a strike. However, a misdemeanor may be counted as a third strike offense if a person has already been convicted of two felonies.
The most serious offenses are considered “felonies” and include the crimes of murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, and forgery. People charged with felonies have additional criminal rights than those charged with misdemeanors, including the right to a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one.
Generally, a crime punishable by imprisonment of one year or more is considered a felony. In some states, certain felonies are punishable by death. People convicted of felonies are sentenced to state or federal prison. Additionally, felony convictions may restrict a person’s rights by requiring them to register as a certain type of offender, by prohibiting them from serving on juries, or by barring them from owning firearms. Some states have eliminated the misdemeanor/felony classification and instead classify offenses by degrees.
Some traffic offenses are misdemeanors such as speeding, failure to yield, or failure to stop at a stop sign. Others are more serious such as DUI (driving under the influence), driving with a suspended or revoked license, evading an officer, failure to stop for a school bus, or reckless driving. Most states have standard fines for these violations and may take into account whether a person has other recent traffic violations. Some states also follow a point system that assigns points for violations and people who receive too many points within a certain period of time may have their license suspended or revoked. Of course, violations may also result in higher insurance premiums.
Closely related to criminal law is criminal procedure, which refers to the techniques used to deal with people who are suspected of committing a crime. This includes arrest methods and the process of search and seizure. It also includes such constitutional rights as the right to confront witnesses, the right to a jury trial, and the right to a competent attorney.
In some situations, criminal acts may be defensible. A criminal defense attorney may raise the issue of insanity, duress, self-defense, or intoxication. Because every state’s criminal law is unique, it is wise to seek the advice of a lawyer if you have been accused of a crime.