What is Criminal Law?

Criminal law deals exclusively with the crimes and punishments of people. A crime is any act or behavior that society has decided should be punished by imprisonment, fine or both. The rules for criminal law vary depending on whether the charge is a felony or misdemeanor, and whether the case is held in state or federal court.

Felonies and Misdemeanors

Most crimes are divided into two main categories: felonies and misdemeanors. How crimes are classified varies from state to state based on the will of the people and their elected representatives. Generally:

  • Felonies are crimes that are punished by more than one year in prison and usually are the more serious of the two.
  • Misdemeanors are crimes where the person faces less than one year in prison and are usually less serious crimes.

Federal vs. State Prosecution

The rules change depending on whether the crime is charged in State or Federal Court. Most criminal matters are dealt with in state courts unless:

  • The crime occurred on federal property
  • Federal employee committed the crime
  • The criminal activity affects interstate commerce, such as drug trafficking

Criminal Law Proceedings

Although the rules often vary, most criminal proceedings follow these general steps:

  • Stop/investigation
    • for the police to stop or investigate you they must have a reasonable belief that you violated the law
  • Search
    • if a police officer believes that evidence is needed to further the investigation they must get a search warrant
    • to get a search warrant the officer must provide the issuing judge with probable cause, which usually means that there is enough facts to support the assumption that there is sufficient evidence present at the scene where they are going to search
    • a police officer does not need a warrant if there are exigent circumstances, which means there is an extreme need for personal or public safety to search the premises
  • Interrogation
    • a person can be questioned as long as their constitutional rights are protected Arrest
    • the police must have probable cause to arrest an individual, unless the crime was committed in the officer’s presence
    • the person must be afforded the constitutional right to obtain an attorney and to remain silent until speaking with that attorney
  • Charge/release/bail
    • the police have a very short time after arrest in which to charge or release you
    • if the police decide to charge you, a complaint or indictment will be filed, and at an arraignment you will hear the charges against you
    • at this point you have the option to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest
    • in some cases a preliminary hearing may also be held
    • there may also be settlement conferences set to try to reach a plea bargain
  • Trial
    • the constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury
    • the jury will make a finding of guilty, not guilty or acquittal Sentencing Hearing
    • The Court will determined the length and type of punishment you will receive

What can you do if you are Accused of a Crime?

If you are accused of a crime, you should speak to a lawyer immediately to learn more about your rights, your defenses and the complicated legal system.

Victims of a Crime:

If you are a victim of a crime, you should call the police. If there is sufficient evidence, the police will then forward your case to the District Attorney’s office to prosecute the person who committed the crime against you.