Overview

Chaos must be controlled in order for a human group to thrive: it’s a lesson evidenced in today’s Survivor television show, as well as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and in the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Civilizations over time have streamlined and finessed how best to control the actions of the individual for the benefit of the group, evolving into today’s form of government, and particularly, the method of punishment for those who fail to abide by the established norms — i.e., those who commit crimes.

Criminal law is a collection of state and federal laws that define offensive actions, as well as regulate the apprehension, charging, trial, and punishment of the alleged offender. Both state and federal legislatures draft proposed criminal laws, which are then voted into law by the legislative body. Courts can also decide that certain activities are against the law, defining things to be crimes, as can municipalities, counties, and other governing bodies.

Criminal procedure is that component of criminal law that deals with the process of enforcing the laws that have defined what actions will be considered a crime, as well as the scope of punishment applicable to that crime. The United States sets high standards for protecting the individual citizen through out the criminal law process: each citizen is presumed to be innocent of the charge; his guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; and his punishment cannot be cruel and unusual.

Crimes and Torts

Sometimes, the same activities that define a crime will also be the basis of a civil action, or tort. In these instances, the individual has not only broken the law and committed a crime, but he has injured the victim in a way that allows the victim and his family to seek monetary damages against him, in a personal injury lawsuit in civil court. In this civil suit, the injured victim will be a party to the lawsuit seeking a judgment (the plaintiff); however, in the criminal case, he will be only a witness for the prosecution, as the government seeks to enforce the criminal law.

Types of Crimes

Criminal activity is divided into separate categories based upon its perceived severity, and different ranges of punishment are assessed within those categories – ranging from capital punishment (e.g., death) for the most heinous crime to a minimal monetary fine for a minor infraction (e.g., minor traffic violation).

Felonies are very serious crimes with a range of punishment usually involving an extended loss of freedom involving many years, to life imprisonment and even death. Extensive protections exist in the law regarding the criminal processing of a felony, beginning with the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment, for example, requires that all federal felonies begin with a formal indictment, where a grand jury must agree that the individual should be charged with the crime. The Sixth Amendment requires that the felony defendant receive a speedy trial as well as having the assistance of an attorney during the proceedings, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate oneself extends to being given the now well-known “Miranda warning.” Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Misdemeanors are minor crimes with a punishment ranging from a small fine to a loss of freedom of one year (or less). In some states, traffic law infractions are categorized as “violations” instead of misdemeanors, and segregated to special traffic courts.

Punishment for Crimes

Punishment for crimes varies from state to state; nevertheless, all jurisdictions can take an individual’s freedom as well as his property if he is proven guilty of a crime. Incarceration can be in prison or in jail, and at times, it can be solitary confinement. House arrest is a form of incarceration that is becoming more popular in many areas of the country due to the technological advances of ankle monitors, etc. Fines can be imposed as specific monetary amounts, and the individual’s property can be taken and sold to meet the fine.

Defenses

Perhaps the best criminal defense is provided by the prosecutor who fails to meet the state’s burden of proof: if the properly-admitted evidence does not meet the high burden of establishing the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” then the case must be dismissed. The case can also end if the defendant can establish one of several defenses defined in state or federal law.

Defenses to Legal Capacity

Legal incapacity can be shown, for example, if the defendant is a minor (infancy) or mentally incompetent. Children are not held legally responsible for their actions until they are old enough to comprehend the difference between right and wrong as well as the consequences of their actions. Under the age of seven, a child is legally presumed not to be capable of committing a crime.

In Pennsylvania insanity can be used in some criminal cases. Mentally ill individuals are considered incapable of forming the necessary intent needed to commit a crime. In some situations Defendants who are otherwise sane may nevertheless have an insanity defense under such legal doctrines as “irresistible impulse,” where even knowing the difference between right and wrong, the defendant cannot control his actions. Perhaps the most famous example of “irresistible impulse” occurred in the Otto Preminger movie, Anatomy of a Murder, where defense attorney Jimmy Stewart successfully used the defense to gain the freedom of defendant Lt. Fred Manion, played by Ben Gazzara.

Intoxication, as a general rule, is not a defense to a crime unless the defendant was involuntarily intoxicated. Involuntary intoxication under the law removes the intent element from the crime, in a manner similar to that of mental incapacity.

Defenses to Liability

Self-defense, or the defense of others, is a valid defense to a criminal charge – one must have taken the criminal action out of necessity. Other defenses to liability include entrapment, mistake, and duress.

Trends

The FBI’s Annual Report, Crime in the United States (http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2010-crime-statistics), reveals that in 2009, there were almost 15 million crimes reported in the United States, with drug abuse offenses, driving under the influence, and property crimes ranking among the most common offenses. In 2010, preliminary numbers showed a decrease in both property crimes as well as violent crimes (murder, rape, assault).

Under federal law, “sentencing guidelines” were established in the 1980s as an attempt to insure that federal defendants across the country, accused of the same crime, would obtain similar punishment. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court called into question the constitutionality of these guidelines in the case of Blakely v. Washington, 542 US 296 (2004) (http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-1632.ZS.html), and thereafter ruled that the portion of the federal sentencing statute requiring federal judges to impose a sentence within the statute’s Sentencing Range was unconstitutional — as was a provision that prevented appellate courts from reviewing sentences that were imposed outside the guideline’s ranges. U.S. v. Booker, 543 US 220 (2005).

In the aftermath of these two decisions, sentencing within the federal system as well as in various state systems are still being analyzed and restructured in accordance with the constitutional rulings of Blakely and Booker.

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