Criminal Law Basics

While criminal laws are specific to each state and jurisdiction across the nation, there are some commonalities involved in criminal law. Crimes are generally classified as either misdemeanors or felonies. Misdemeanors are the less serious infractions for which someone who is convicted can receive no more than a year's imprisonment. Felonies are far more serious breaches of the law that can result in longer prison terms (up to life without possibility of parole) or even death by whatever method sanctioned by the particular state.

Violations are incidents of minor misconduct like parking tickets and moving violations and even marijuana use in states that have decriminalized but not legalized its use and/or possession in small amounts.

It's interesting to note that while state legislatures have the power to prohibit any acts, their specific laws do not trump the federal laws of the United States. However, with the recent legalization of the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, the federal laws regarding same have remained unenforced at the discretion of the federal agencies with the powers to prosecute.

Local, state and federal laws are defined by statutes that delineate the actions or conduct that is considered illegal in that jurisdiction, the required intent of the lawbreaker and often, the punishment rendered upon conviction. Convictions are obtained through prosecutions and can evolve from an offender's own plea of "guilty" or from either a jury trial or a "bench" trial where a judge listens to the evidence and renders judgment. Once convicted, the offender faces a range of possible censure and correction options ranging from fines, probation, community service, imprisonment or the death penalty.

Rights of the Accused

Simply being charged with a crime does not strip one of fundamental rights under the United States Constitution. Some of those include the accused having a right to a criminal defense attorney even when unable to afford one and the right to a speedy trial to keep one from languishing in jail.

Who's Who in the Criminal Law System

The process begins with the accused offender and the police who arrest him or her. After an arrest, a bail bondsman may post a suspect's bail after a judge sets the amount. Some offenses and circumstances are not eligible for bail, such as violent felonies. Bail may be denied for misdemeanors as well if the person is a poor risk to show up for future court appearances or already has charges of Failure to Appear.

In the courtroom setting are the opposing teams of the prosecuting attorneys (who are sometimes referred to as state or district attorneys) and the criminal defense attorneys. Both sides may call witnesses to testify as to the merits of their respective cases. These witnesses can be cross-examined by opposing counsel and then re-directed under questioning. The judge is the head of the court proceedings, and in jury trials, presides over them and gives them their instructions and warns against juror misconduct.

If a conviction results, the penal system then becomes involved. This can mean corrections officers and jail wardens in the case of incarceration or probation officers when that is the sentence. Those who are incarcerated may wind up with early releases by maintaining good behavior in prison and getting a favorable ruling by the parole board. They will then have to report to a parole officer for a specific amount of time. Failing to comply with the terms of parole can land released convicts back behind bars.

Possible Outcomes of Criminal Proceedings

The outcome of a criminal case depends on many factors, including the strength of the evidence, the believability of the witnesses, the validity of police and courtroom procedures and the skills and presentation of the opposing attorneys. Below are some probable outcomes.

  • A criminal investigation ends without arrest of any suspects.
  • A suspect is arrested and enters a guilty plea, often to a lesser charge in order to get a lighter sentence.
  • Charges are dismissed at some point in the legal proceedings due to illegal evidence seizures, breaches in the evidentiary chain or procedural lapses in the courtroom that make prosecution difficult or impossible.
  • The accused is tried and acquitted by a judge or jury.
  • The defendant is convicted by judge or jury and sentenced to prison, fined, given community service or probation or some combination of these results.

Because there are so many factors at play after someone is arrested, the basics of criminal law are actually quite complex and best handled by an experienced defense attorney.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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