An overview of criminal law, types of crimes and punishments
Most people feel in a general sense that they understand what criminal law is. After all, criminal law generally involves “bad” things that people shouldn’t do. However, there is a notable difference between things that are bad versus criminal conduct. Likewise, the levels of criminality also matter.
What is a crime?
The strict answer to the question,”What is criminal law?” is that it’s the branch of the law dedicated to imposing penalties for specific conduct that violates regulations that state what people should or shouldn’t do.
On the side of the law saying what you should do, driving a car without a license would be an example of a violation where a person should have done something. If they’re an adult who qualifies for a license, they should have obtained one.
As of now, 38 US states and the District of Columbia have criminalized texting while driving.
Even without a texting law, a person can still be charged with reckless driving and vehicular homicide if they cause a fatal car accident while driving distracted.
The flip side covers things you shouldn’t do. The most extreme example would be murder, but there are plenty of lesser offenses, too.
Notably, crimes are offenses according to the state. This means the government brings the charges against the accused.
The opposite of a criminal case would be a civil one. In a civil case, another person or an organization brings a claim of damages against the alleged offender. While the government’s prosecutor can ask the court to put someone in jail or assign penalties, everyone else can only ask the court for compensation or an injunction.
Broadly speaking, American law breaks criminal violations into 3 distinct groups. These are infractions, misdemeanors and felonies. Each deserves a closer examination.
Infractions are the most minor offenses. Typically, infractions result in fines without any additional penalties. Frequently, these cases involve honest mistakes or minor but deliberate offenses.
Common examples of infractions are jaywalking, littering and parking violations:
- Jaywalking is a violation of the laws that require pedestrians to cross streets at designated spots.
- Littering is leaving garbage behind in public areas rather than placing it in designated disposal containers.
- Parking violations involve small offenses like not paying the meter to use a parking spot.
A misdemeanor represents the next level in the scale of criminality. These offenses usually incur larger fines, and there might be jail time, too. Likewise, misdemeanors usually go on a person’s criminal record.
The amount of potential jail time involved generally distinguishes misdemeanors from felonies. Most state and federal laws cap imprisonment periods for misdemeanors at 1 year.
Classes of misdemeanors
A misdemeanor can either be a Class A, B or C offense. Some states call these Level 1, 2 or 3.
- Class A tends to be the worst, and these usually involve offenses that include jailing a person for between 181 days and 1 year.
- Class B misdemeanors involve between 91 and 180 days in jail.
- Class C misdemeanors involve less than 90 days of jail time.
Punishments for misdemeanors may include fines and restitution. Courts also can impose counseling requirements for offenses involving drunkenness, drug abuse or unruly behavior.
Misdemeanors are usually worrisome offenses. A simple assault in a bar fight, for example, might be a misdemeanor as long as nothing too terrible happened. Other common misdemeanors include:
- Disorderly conduct
- Some forms of theft
What is a felony?
If a conviction for an offense carries more than 1 year of jail time, it’s a felony.
Punishments for felonies can be as extreme as life in prison for some offenses. Likewise, the worst punishments for the worst felonies in some states carry the death penalty.
Fines for felonies also tend to be much higher, and courts can impose additional terms that last beyond the completion of a prison sentence. These include:
- Sex offender registration
- No-fly lists
- Prohibitions on working in positions of public trust
- Losing the right to own guns and other weapons
Common felonies include the following:
- Acts of terrorism
Drug crimes are often felonies, especially if they involve trafficking or the use of highly dangerous controlled substances. You might also face felony charges for an aggravated assault, a form of attack that usually involves severe bodily harm or death threats.
Some cases are not clear-cut, and these are often referred to as wobblers. These are cases that could land as misdemeanors or felonies depending on how the prosecution charges the offense. Prosecutors frequently overcharge cases to improve their odds of winning convictions by convincing defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges.
Common criminal defenses
There are a number of defenses a criminal defense attorney could employ to get their client freed from the charges against them.
The simplest defense is that you didn’t do whatever the state says you did. Likewise, you might assert that you did something—but it wasn’t a crime. For example, you might argue that a fight was an act of allowable self-defense rather than an assault.
You could also base your defense on police or prosecutorial mistakes or misconduct. If the cops lost track of key evidence, you might ask the judge to dismiss the case. Similarly, you could ask the court to dismiss a case if the state didn’t file the right paperwork.
Rather than presenting a defense, a criminal defense attorney may recommend trying to negotiate a plea bargain. This is an agreement where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser punishment.
A first-time offender charged with simple assault, for example, might plead guilty to disorderly conduct in exchange for a suspended sentence pending the completion of anger management classes.
Imprisonment for a crime that one didn’t commit is a horrible reality for some. Fortunately, there are circumstances where the truth becomes known and the innocent party is set free. The question of what happens after that is more vexed.
Hiring a criminal defense attorney
Due to the many long-lasting repercussions of getting convicted of or even simply being charged with a crime, it’s always best to seek the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney who can ensure your rights are protected.
They can negotiate plea bargains or challenge evidence to build a strong defense for your case. Hiring a criminal defense attorney can increase your chances of a favorable outcome and ensure that your case is handled effectively.