Criminal Law Basics

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State and federal governments enact legislation that is the foundation for criminal law. Criminal law, also known as penal law, governs individual actions and can make specific actions illegal. The government enforces criminal law by doling out punishments based on the severity of individual crimes. Basic criminal punishments vary greatly from country to country, though the most violent crimes, such as murder and rape, tend to be severely punished across the board. Even within the United States, criminal law can carry very different penalties with an extensive range of punishments. The most severe of these consequences is capital punishment, or the death penalty, which has not been in use in many states for over two decades.

The United States Congress and state legislatures enact criminal laws. State courts have traditionally been the ones which make criminal laws, based upon existing common law inherited from England. Most ordinary crimes are covered by state criminal laws. Federal laws deal with federal taxes, federal property, federal employees, receipt of federal benefits, federally guaranteed civil rights, and crimes involving interstate commerce.

There are various types of crimes as well. The two main categories are felonies and misdemeanors. The crime's seriousness and the length of the punishment determine its categorization. Felonies are more serious crimes usually punishable with a longer sentence. Incarceration for felony crimes will usually take place in a state or federal prison. When you are charged with a felony crime, you have the right to a jury trial. The common law felonies include murder, kidnapping, treason, burglary, rape, and robbery.

The other category, misdemeanors, are crimes that receive less of a punishment, generally less than one year's imprisonment, in a county or local jail. If the crime is considered serious enough, which is dependent on the judge, then you may have the right to a jury.

There are different degrees of crimes. First degree is the most serious, and the least serious is fourth degree. First degree includes murder, sexual assault and kidnapping.

Each crime also has to contain specific elements that define the crime. For example, for a defendant to be convicted on a charge of murder, it must be proven during the trial that 1) the defendant had the intent to cause a person to be killed; that 2) the defendant did in fact kill another human being. If the death was accidental, it will not be considered murder, which attaches a requirement of malice aforethought, but will be charged as manslaughter instead.

Crimes tried in criminal courts range from trespassing and theft to a variety of degrees of murder, assault and sexual offenses. For the less severe offenses, the penalty can be as minor as having probation or being placed under house arrest for a certain amount of time. For some criminal motor violations, an offender may be punished by having his or her driver's license revoked for a period of time. For more severe offenses, long prison sentences, some without the possibility of parole, and capital punishment are possible sentences.

The process that is followed in a criminal trial process includes arrest, booking and the possibility of bail, arraignment, plea bargaining, a pre-trial hearing, a trial, and finally sentencing. If a defendant is found guilty it is very likely that an appeal will be filed, and there is a possibility that the criminal trial process will begin again in an appellate court if it is not denied.

If a person is going to be prosecuted for their crimes, then their arrest and booking will be followed by a complaint issued by a judge or an indictment issued by a grand jury. Two significant differences between a criminal trial and a civil trial have to do with the burden of proof, and the punishment that may be handed down. In a criminal trial a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, while in a civil trial it is simply a preponderance of evidence, which is defined as 50% or more, that is sufficient to bring down a guilty verdict. Not surprisingly, because the standards for proving someone guilty in a civil trial are not as stringent, the punishments that can be doled out in a civil case are not as severe. In criminal convictions, defendants' liberties are taken away through prison sentences or other restrictions. In civil trials, the defendant is usually punished by having to pay reparations.