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Criminal law may be the most familiar area of law to many Americans, but understanding criminal law can be difficult. Criminal law is an area of law where a defendant is charged by the state or government with violating a statute, and where a guilty finding or plea may result in jail or prison or in a financial penalty. While the government may also bring civil actions against defendants seeking the payment of money – the most basic difference is that the purpose behind a criminal payment of money is that it is a penalty, whereas the payment of money in a civil case is typically compensatory. Individuals involved in a criminal proceeding are usually arrested by the government at the beginning of a criminal case.
In the United States, criminal charges may either be federal or state or both. The constitutional notion of federalism means that Americans live under two sovereigns – both a sovereign federal government and a sovereign state government. Individuals are both a United States citizen and also live under the authority of a state government. The federal government uniquely prohibits some actions, such as tax fraud on filing of federal taxes, that do not violate state law; state governments uniquely prohibit some actions, such as robbery, that do not violate federal law; and both the federal and state governments simultaneously may prohibit the same action, such as the murder of a United States postal worker. Only the government who’s laws were broken may institute a criminal action; but this also means that there are some crimes that violate the laws of both types of government and each government may press criminal charges without violating the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.
Criminal law involves both guilty thoughts (mens rea) and guilty actions (actus reus). Thus we generally do not criminally charge individuals incapable of guilty thoughts (the insane or juveniles), or prosecute individuals who only think bad things but do act upon those thoughts (a fiction writer who describes a murder). This is not to say that the government does not attempt to regulate the behavior of the insane (e.g., via civil commitment) or minors (e.g., via a system of juvenile justice), but rather these systems are largely distinct from the criminal system. Criminal law is typically broken down between felonies, those crimes where an individual may serve in prison for a year or more, and misdemeanors, those crimes where the maximum penalty is less than one year in prison.
Criminal lawyers sometimes specialize in violent crimes, white collar crimes, or drug and narcotics crimes. Violent crimes may include murder, manslaughter, rape, or aggravated battery; white collar crimes may include embezzlement, fraud, bribery, or forgery. Regardless of the type of crime, each defendant in the American system of justice is presumed innocent in a court of law until proven guilty. Further, the government must follow particular rules that protect individual rights in the course of the prosecution – ranging from search and arrest warrants, Miranda warnings, confrontation rights, speedy trial rights, and punishment.
Sentencing, or the punishment for crimes, may include prison or jail, but also alternatives including drug rehabilitation, boot camp, or psychological testing. In general, these are alternatives to prison or jail as terms of probation. When a person violates the terms of probation, or violates the terms of parole (an early release of an inmate), this may result in the revocation of the probation or parole and the subsequent incarceration of the criminal.
There are cases where the government or a court fails to follow the proper procedures for a criminal prosecution. In many of those cases, a defendant may appeal to a higher court objecting to what happened in the lower court. In some cases a defendant may seek a new trial, and in other cases a defendant wants to be released from jail or prison. The ability of the government to appeal what happened during the course of a trial or sentencing is generally limited, largely because of individual criminal rights – including double jeopardy.
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