The Criminal Process
Criminal law is the body of civil law that deals primarily with criminal activity. It pertains to criminal conduct construed as dangerous, menacing, malicious, or otherwise likely to cause serious harm to the person, property, health, or financial welfare of others, in addition to one’s own self. The states have varying laws that define crimes, including the punishments for those crimes. Although the punishment differs from state to state, punishment for crimes is defined as a severe action that society views as morally wrong.
Criminal offenses range from minor crimes such as robbery and petty theft to major offenses like murder, rape, arson, assault, embezzlement, and many more. The punishment for these crimes, including the penalties for minor and major crimes, are determined by state law. In most jurisdictions, there is a distinction between felonies and misdemeanors, which are generally lesser crimes. Felonies are punishable by a prison term of more than a year while misdemeanors may be punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to one thousand dollars. The state-level penalties for various types of criminal acts are also dependent on the nature of the crime and the circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime.
Violation of state law, or violation of a person’s right to freedom guaranteed under the Constitution and the laws of the United States, is considered a criminal act. Criminal violation includes willfully breaking and entering a home, knowingly false statements in a work application or in a student identification card, knowingly assault or murder of a police officer, knowingly furnishing false information to a government agency, knowingly concealing material information from a government agency, or willfully procuring false information from a government agency. Some jurisdictions further define criminal violation of a person’s rights by allowing juries to assign a portion of a sentence to each offense. Criminal law deals with both state and federal offenses. State laws vary significantly when it comes to definitions of what is considered a criminal act.
The most important aspect of criminal law is evidence. It is often said that it is not in the power of a government to convict a person for the same crime twice, though in some circumstances a double jeopardy clause allows a defendant to be tried again for the same crime even if there were additional charges filed against them at the time of the first trial. There are many exceptions to this rule, however. The Fifth Amendment protects individuals from self-incrimination, which is an exception to testimonial evidence, and it provides no protection against double jeopardy. Thus, if the state prosecutors are convinced beyond all doubt that a defendant is guilty of the charged crime, a defendant has the right to enter a plea of “not guilty” before a judge.
In contrast, with regards to more serious crimes such as felonies and enhancements, a defendant may face the prospect of punishment after their initial arrest. If convicted of a felony, for example, a felony conviction will remain on a person’s criminal record until it is cleared by service of a pardon or other action by the government. Conversely, if found guilty of a serious crime, such as assault, a person may face the possibility of additional punishment, such as a lengthy period of incarceration, if they fail to register as a sex offender upon their release from prison, or if they commit another crime after their release from prison.
Criminal defendants should not expect the criminal process to be lenient. While some elements of the law can be found to be procedural rather than substantive, especially in cases involving extremely serious crimes, courts are often reluctant to apply the common punishment of incarceration when they are clearly warranted. When a person is convicted of a crime, their rights to effective counsel and a fair trial are severely limited. This can include the right to appoint a private attorney, the right to enter a plea of “not guilty” before a judge, the right to ask questions of prosecution witnesses, the right to make an effective defense, the right to see the inside of the jail cell, the right to have a private conversation with the person who is about to take them into custody, the right to examine secret evidence, the ability to post bail, and more.