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The Basics of Criminal Law



Criminal law is the branch of law that covers criminal offenses. It defines crimes, provides for the rights of the accused and establishes the criminal process. Crimes can be investigated, charged and adjudicated either at a state level or a federal level.

This article will discuss the basics of criminal law.

Felonies And Misdemeanors

Generally, there are two categories of crimes: Felonies and misdemeanors.

Felonies are considered more serious crimes. They usually entail at least a year in jail. Examples of felonies include:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Arson
  • Robbery

Misdemeanors are lesser crimes. They usually entail less than a year in jail. Examples of misdemeanors include:

  • Theft
  • Simple assault
  • Vandalism
  • Public intoxication

Some crimes can be either felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the details of the crime and the state's criminal code. These crimes are referred to as wobblers. An example of a wobbler crime is assault.

Elements Of A Crime

To prove that someone is guilty, the prosecution (the party in charge of proving someone's guilt) must convince a judge or jury that the defendant (the party accused of the crime) had a guilty mind when committing the guilty act.

When describing the criminal's state of mind, the law relies on the following terms:

  • Knowledge
  • Purpose
  • Recklessness
  • Negligence

For example, the crime of murder occurs when someone intentionally kills another human being. This means, to obtain a conviction, the prosecution must convince the jury not only that the individual killed another human being, but that he also intended to kill.

Rights Of The Accused

If you have been accused of a crime, you retain several rights upon your arrest, including:

  • The right to remain silent: This is intended to protect you from saying something that might incriminate you.
  • The right to an attorney: Usually, you will be able to contact your criminal attorney after you are booked at the police station. Criminal attorneys can advise you throughout the criminal justice process and represent you in court.
  • The right to have an attorney appointed to you: If you cannot afford an attorney, you can have one appointed to represent you. This type of attorney is known as a public defender.

The Criminal Law Process

The criminal process begins with the arrest. Within a short period of time, the police will either charge you with a crime or release you.

If you are charged with a crime, you will have to appear in court for your arraignment. This is when your charges are read aloud and you are given an opportunity to enter a plea, such as guilty or not guilty. If you plead not guilty, the judge will set a trial date.

While awaiting trial, the accused may have an opportunity to enter a plea bargain with the prosecution. A plea bargain is when the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser crime for a lighter sentence. If no bargain is struck, the case will be heard before a judge or jury at trial.

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