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Criminal Law: an Overview

Criminal law involves prosecution by the government of a person for an act that has been classified as a crime. Civil cases, on the other hand, involve individuals and organizations seeking to resolve legal disputes. In a criminal case the state, through a prosecutor, initiates the suit, while in a civil case the victim brings the suit. Persons convicted of a crime may be incarcerated, fined, or both. However, persons found liable in a civil case may only have to give up property or pay money, but are not incarcerated.

A "crime" is any act or omission (of an act) in violation of a public law forbidding or commanding it. Though there are some common law crimes, most crimes in the United States are established by local, state, and federal governments. Criminal laws vary significantly from state to state. There is, however, a Model Penal Code (MPC) which serves as a good starting place to gain an understanding of the basic structure of criminal liability.

Crimes include both felonies (more serious offenses -- like murder or rape) and misdemeanors (less serious offenses -- like petty theft or jaywalking). Felonies are usually crimes punishable by imprisonment of a year or more, while misdemeanors are crimes punishable by less than a year. However, no act is a crime if it has not been previously established as such either by statute or common law. Recently, the list of Federal crimes, dealing with activities extending beyond state boundaries or having special impact on federal operations, has grown.

All statutes describing criminal behavior can be broken down into their various elements. Most crimes (with the exception of strict-liability crimes) consist of two elements: an act, or "actus reus," and a mental state, or "mens rea." Prosecutors have to prove each and every element of the crime to yield a conviction. Furthermore, the prosecutor must persuade the jury or judge "beyond a reasonable doubt" of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged. In civil cases, the plaintiff needs to show a defendant is liable only by a "preponderance of the evidence," or more than 50%.

Criminal procedure: an overview
Criminal procedure is composed of the rules governing the series of proceedings through which the substantive criminal law is enforced. In the United States, most crimes are defined by local and state government, though the federal government has adopted its own criminal code, at Title 18, to deal with activities extending beyond state boundaries or having special impact on federal operations.

The procedure for criminal trials in federal courts is outlined in Title 18. States also have statutes that set out the framework for criminal procedure, subject to important constitutional limits. For example, the U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights provides basic protections including the right to an attorney, the right to not testify, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to a jury trial, among others. State constitutions may increase, but not take away from the federal protections.

The American criminal system is an adversarial and accusatorial model. Criminal procedure must balance the defendant's rights and the state's interests in a speedy and efficient trial with the desire for justice. Therefore, the rules of criminal procedure are designed to ensure that a defendant's rights are protected.

The rules of criminal procedure are different from those of civil procedure, because the two areas (criminal and civil) have different objectives and results. In criminal cases, the state brings the suit and must show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, while in civil cases the plaintiff brings the suit and must only show the defendant is liable by a preponderance of the evidence.

Criminal Law Fact: Criminal law sets the acceptable limits of conduct in society.

Other Crimical Law Facts
  • Criminal Lawyers Fact: Criminal law sets the acceptable limits of conduct in society.
  • Driving under the Influence Fact: A person is guilty of DUI if he or she drives or is in actual physical control of a motor vehicle and is under the influence of alcoholic beverages or any chemical or controlled substance to the extent that his or her mental faculties are impaired.
  • Arrest & Search Fact: The laws of arrest and search are governed primarily by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Drug Crimes Fact: A drug crime is the possession, manufacture, use, or distribution of an illegal drug.
  • Bail Fact: Bail is the release of a prisoner on security of a future appearance; the security is generally either cash or bond.
  • Traffic Law Fact: A police officer is authorized to require the driver of the vehicle to produce a valid driver's license and documentation establishing the ownership of the vehicle.
  • Military Law Fact: Military law is the rules of conduct administered by military courts for the discipline, trial, and punishment of military personnel.
  • White Collar Crime Fact: White collar crime is a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.



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