Definition: Laws written by Congress and state legislators that make certain behavior illegal and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. Criminal law also includes decisions by appellate courts that define crimes and regulate criminal procedure in the absence of clear legislated rules. By contrast, civil laws are not punishable by imprisonment. In order to be found guilty of a criminal law, the prosecution must show that the defendant intended to act as he did; in civil law, you may sometimes be responsible for your actions even though you did not intend the consequences. For example, civil law makes you financially responsible for a car accident you caused but didn’t intend.
Criminal law deals with the enforcement of laws that ban conduct that is harmful to society as a whole. Central to criminal law is the concept of of punishment, which exists to deter future bad acts and provide justice. Criminal punishments include fines, community service, education, and jail.
Mens Rea: “A Guilty Mind” Crimes
Criminal laws have varying degree of seriousness. The most serious require the specific intent to do some criminal act. Some, such as first-degree murder, require requisite intent, meaning that the crime was planned and committed on purpose. In this case, the requisite intent is called “malice aforethought.” For example, Jake laid in wait, jumping on Mack when he returned home. Jake shot Mack, wanting to watch him die.
Other crimes require the specific intent to deliver, to deceive, or to deprive. The individuals who carried out the crime must have had the mens rea (“guilty mind”) to do so. For example, Fred takes Suzy’s new car because he plans to drive to California and never return. Fred is guilty of auto theft because he took Suzy’s car with the intent to permanently deprive her of that car.
General Intent Crimes
General Intent is also called “basic intent.” You only need have the intent to perform the act; you do not have to intend to commit a crime or break a law.
General intent is easily evidenced by the crime of battery. Jasper feels like swinging his arms wildly about. Robert is nearby and Jasper hits Robert, while he was swinging his arms. It was an accident; regardless, Jasper is guilty of battery.
Juveniles, those under the age of 18, are protected by special rules for the prosecution of their criminal case.
- Miranda Rights: An individual has rights during police questioning, such as the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
- Fourth Amendment Rights: The Fourth Amendment protects an individual from unreasonable search, seizure, and arrest.
- Right to Legal Counsel: Everyone has the right to competent legal counsel throughout the criminal justice system, even upon appeal.
- Right to a Speedy Trial: Everyone has the right to a trial within a “reasonable” period of time.
- Protection from Double Jeopardy: Everyone has the right not to be tried of the same crime twice.
- Sixth Amendment Rights: Everyone has the right to confront anyone who accuses you of a crime. The cross examination of a witness during trial is an example of Sixth Amendment rights.
- Protection from Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Everyone has the right to be protected from unduly harsh punishment.
- Prisoners’ Civil Rights: Those, convicted of crimes and incarcerated, maintain civil rights such as the right to be free from sexual crimes and sexual harassment, the right to complain about prison facilities, the right to appeal their cases, the right for disabled prisoners to have access to programs, the right to medical care, and the right to mental health care.
If information is expunged from someone’s record, it is sealed and, legally, is as if the arrest or conviction never happened for most intents and purposes of daily life. Only certain governmental agencies have access to the sealed portions of a criminal record.
Where to Get Help with Criminal Law Matters
If you or a loved one has been accused of or arrested for a crime, or if you just need more information, seek the guidance of qualified criminal law attorney.