Criminal Law

The United States legal system involves two types of law: criminal and civil. Civil legal cases refer to disputes between individuals that involve legal responsibilities they owe one another. In contrast, criminal law regulates social conduct and seeks punishment for a person’s crimes. Thus, while a civil case between individuals addresses personal compensation, a criminal case involves a body of people who decide whether to punish an individual for his or her conduct or lack thereof (i.e. omission). Punishments for criminal offenses vary according to the severity of the offense.

criminal-lawAccording to Cornell Law School, a “crime” refers to any “act or omission in violation of a law prohibiting it, or omitted in violation of a law ordering it”. In other words, for a crime to have occurred, unlawful “conduct” must have been committed.

Individuals cannot be prosecuted for conduct that was not considered “criminal” at the time they acted. Article 1, Sections 9 and 10, the U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits ex post facto laws – criminal laws that are retroactively applicable. States are free to create their own criminal codes, which must be considered constitutional. Therefore, what may be considered a crime in one state may be considered lawful in a different state. The U.S. Congress also has its own set of criminal laws called “federal criminal laws,” which are codified in Title 18 of the U.S. Code. However, state criminal laws often differ from federal criminal laws. For instance, while some statutes may resemble the common law criminal code, others like the New York Penal Law closely resemble the Model Penal Code (MPC).

Are There Different Types of Crimes?

In general, a criminal code asks three questions:

  • What was the act or conduct committed? (actus reus)
  • What was the individual’s mental state at the time the act occurred? (mens rea)
  • What is the link between the act committed and the offense as defined by the law?

Crimes generally fall into four categories: felonies, misdemeanors, strict liability, and inchoate offenses. If you or someone you know may be charged with a crime, it is important to understand the distinctions:

Felonies – conduct that is violent or non-violent and is considered more serious than a misdemeanor. In general, individuals convicted of a felony are incarcerated for a year or more and / or receive the death penalty. When individuals have been charged with a felony arrest, their conduct has not yet been charged against them. In other words, a felony charge differs from a felony arrest in that they are only brought up against someone once the case has gone to trial and charges formally entered into court record.

Misdemeanor – conduct that is considered less serious according to the criminal law code by which the individual is judged. Misdemeanors require fines or jail time, rather than prison time, served for a year or less.

Strict liability – legal responsibilities held for an injury with which an individual can be charged even if their negligence cannot be proven.

Inchoate offense – refers to conduct that may serve as preparation towards the completion of a crime. It generally involves conduct that is considered criminal, but has not yet resulted in harm. Some inchoate offenses include attempt, conspiracy, and solicitation:

  • criminal-law-buildingAttempt – Specific intent and clear steps taken towards committing a crime must be proven. A defendant can still be charged with attempt even if they did not complete the crime.
  • Conspiracy – An agreement between two or more people that reveals an overt intent to achieve a punishable offense. A conspiracy allows for “derivative liability,” which   punishes all conspirators, not just the member(s) directly involved.
  • Solicitation – Offering someone money with the intent of convincing them to commit a crime.

 

With years of experience in taking on the toughest, most high-profile criminal law cases in Chicago, the legal team at the Sam Adam Jr. Law Group is fully equipped to take on your case. Contact our offices today to schedule a consultation.

Sources:

Duff, Antony, “Theories of Criminal Law”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

http://research.clps.brown.edu/SocCogSci/Publications/Pubs/Malle_Nelson_(2003)_Mens_rea.pdf

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