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What is Criminal Law?

The laws of any jurisdiction are designed to maintain order and punish offenders for violations. All laws fall into two broad categories: civil and criminal law. Civil law deals with behavior that causes harm to another person or entity. 

On the other hand, criminal law deals with behavior considered an offense to society, government, and the public, even when the victim is a single individual. This guide focuses on criminal law and can be an excellent read for understanding its basics.

State and Federal Crimes

“Both levels of government can bring criminal cases against an individual. Whether the federal or state government brings charges depends on the type of crime and circumstances,” says Attorney David Benowitz, a DC Federal Criminal Attorney. 

Crimes that are strictly federally prosecuted include arson, human and drug trafficking, bank robbery, child pornography crimes, financial crimes, mail fraud, hate crimes, and terrorism. 

Most crimes are prosecutable on a state level but graduate to the federal level if the conduct crosses state or international boundaries. For example, solicitation of a minor for sex is a state crime. However, if the solicitation occurs online and crosses state lines, the crime graduates into a federal crime. 

Types of Crimes

Generally, states will classify crimes as infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies. Infractions are the least severe types of crimes and are often referred to as petty offenses and are typically punished by small fines. They include littering, traffic violations, animal control violations, vandalism, and public intoxication.

Misdemeanors fall in the middle of their crimes; they are more serious than infractions but less serious than felonies. Misdemeanors are punishable by less than 12 months in jail, fine, probation, community service, or a combination. Misdemeanor crimes include simple assault, drug possession, shoplifting, domestic violence, and some forms of DUI.

Felonies are the highest tier of crimes and apply to the most serious crimes, such as aggravated assault, repeat DUI, murder, manslaughter, robbery, financial crimes, sexual assault, child pornography, etc. 

If convicted of a felony, the offender will look at jail times exceeding one year to life, death sentence, and hefty fines. When the felony charge is not as serious, the offender could avoid jail time by getting stricter but with stricter terms, community service, and fines.

The Rights of the Accused

Defendants in a criminal case have rights that must always be upheld. Among them is the right to remain silent, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution. This right was designed to protect defendants from self-incrimination. A defendant is not obligated to answer questions until they have a lawyer with them. 

Having a lawyer is also a constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment. If a defendant cannot afford one, the court appoints one to represent them. The Sixth Amendment also covers the right to a speedy trial that protects a defendant from being kept in jail for extended periods without trial and the right to a jury trial. In most jurisdictions, most of these rights are waivable, but it is not necessarily a good idea unless it is the advice you get from your lawyer.

Once convicted of a crime, the defendant must fulfill the terms of their sentencing but reserve a right to an appeal. Some states allow convicted offenders to have their records expunged for some type after satisfying the terms of their sentence, so if you have been convicted of a crime in the past, you can ask a lawyer to help you look into the possibility of clearing your record.

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