Guide to Penal Law
What is Criminal Law?
Criminal law involves a system of legal rules designed to keep the public safe and deter wrongful conduct. Those who violate the law face incarceration, fines, and other penalties. The American criminal justice system is both complex, and adversarial in nature. With the exception of minor traffic violations, accused individuals will require the assistance of an attorney.
Specific crimes and the consequences for violating them are found in penal codes enacted by legislators at the local, state, and federal levels. Less serious crimes are classified as misdemeanors. These typically carry a maximum of up to one year in the county jail. Examples include petty theft, possession of small amounts of controlled substances, and first-offense drunk driving.
Crimes of a more serious nature are classified as felonies. These carry punishments of a year or more in state or federal prison. Felonies include violent crimes like murder, burglary, and rape, as well as white collar crimes like embezzlement and money laundering.
When questions arise as to how criminal statutes should be interpreted, judges and lawyers turn to previously issued court opinions dealing with the same issues. This principal is known as “stare decisis.” It means that once a court issues a decision involving a given set of circumstances, that ruling is binding precedent for similar disputes that come before the court on a later date.
Law enforcement agencies have the responsibility of investigating alleged crimes. Procedural rules are in place to ensure police officers respect the constitutional rights of the citizens they investigate. When a defense attorney challenges the legality of a criminal prosecution, most times the dispute is a result of procedural violations by the police.
Protecting Your Rights.
Each stage of a criminal prosecution presents traps for defendants who are not familiar with the court system. Criminal defense attorneys are trained to prevent their clients from doing or saying things that will increase the likelihood of conviction. But when legal counsel has not been hired or appointed, accused individuals can unknowingly waive their rights and harm their own interests.
For example, following an arrest, law enforcement will question a suspect in regards to the crime. The officers will inform the suspect of his or her “Miranda rights” (right to remain silent, right to an attorney), and then attempt to elicit a confession. Without a lawyer present, defendants can make incriminating statements that will later be used against them in court.
In both misdemeanors and felonies, an arraignment will be held in open court. The judge will explain the nature of the charges to the defendant and ask for a plea. Without the assistance of an attorney, defendants will often plead guilty at this initial stage. By doing so, they are giving up important rights, as well as the opportunity to negotiate the terms of their sentence beforehand.
Discovery proceedings are another critical stage in a criminal case. This is when the defendant can demand that the prosecutor turn over copies of all of the evidence gathered by law enforcement. In DUI and DWI cases especially, the police reports, lab results, video recordings, and other items will likely determine whether the case settles or continues on to trial. To make informed decisions, the defendant must obtain these materials.
If the state fails to offer a plea bargain the defendant is willing to accept, the case will proceed to trial. This is the time to question witnesses and present argument to the jury. Conducting a trial is not for the layperson to attempt. Legal training is needed to perform effective cross-examination, comply with the rules of evidence, and so forth. After all, the outcome may determine whether the defendant walks free, or goes to jail.
Know your Rights!
- Are 3D Printed Plastic Guns Legal?
The arrival of 3D printing technology has led to some amazing new possibilities for things like replicating broken parts, creating amazing works of 3D art, and manufacturing entire items from patters found online. But, as is usually the case with any new technology, someone finds a way to use it for something sinister. Several creators invented 3D printed plastic guns and made plans available online. But, are these 3D printed plastic guns legal?
- How Do You Get Out of Jail After an Arrest?
Generally, one can get out of jail by posting bail. Bail is usually cash or a piece of property pledged to the court as part of a promise that the defendant (the person who has been arrested) will return to court when ordered to do so.
- How Much Can You Legally Get Away With Saying to a Cop?
First, a word of warning: doing anything to aggravate a police officer is a really bad idea. Not only are these hard working men and women who likely want to make the world a better place through their work, but they are trained bad asses with guns, handcuffs, and nightsticks and they can really make your life unpleasant.
- How to Get a Criminal Record Expunged
Expungement refers to the process of sealing arrest and conviction records. Virtually every state has enacted laws that allow people to expunge arrests and convictions from their records, but the details will vary from state to state.
- Is a Polygraph Test Admissible as Evidence?
Have you ever wondered why, in a system of justice that relies so heavily upon people telling the truth, every witness is not strapped to a polygraph machine (i.e., a lie detector)? It is a logical question that leads to others about how interrogations and investigations are conducted when polygraphs are used. So, is a polygraph test admissible as evidence?
- Saying No to Police Searches
Police are trained to believe in their authority and trained to perform their interactions with private citizens with confidence and strength.
- Victimized by the Law: Weird Examples of Penalties Against Crime Victims
For example, we have all heard the stories about the burglar who breaks into a home and injures himself then suing the homeowner.
- What Happens if I Am Not Read My Rights?
While many believe that if they are not “read their rights” they will escape punishment for criminal acts, it is not quite so clear cut. Instead, if one is not read their rights, then any evidence obtained from the suspect prior to being advised of their Miranda Rights may be inadmissible as evidence at trial.
- What is an Alibi and How Does it Work?
In simplest terms, an alibi is merely evidence that demonstrates a defendant in a criminal case was somewhere other than the scene of a crime at the time that the crime occurred.
- What is the Difference Between Jail and Prison?
At the most basic level, the fundamental difference between jail and prison is the length of stay for inmates.
- What Kinds of Defenses Can I Use in a Criminal Case?
All people accused of a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty, either in a trial or as a result of pleading guilty.
- When Should You Accept a Plea Bargain in your Criminal Case?
Under that kind of stress, it can be very tempting to accept the first plea offer made to you by the prosecutor.
Articles About Criminal Law
- Building Your Forensic Defense Case . . . First Things FirstA checklist on how to build your defense to the prosecution's forensic case [may] increase your chances of success. It's time to start studying, brainstorming, and building ideas on constructing a solid foundation.
- Steps to Challenge the Prosecution's Forensic EvidenceWhat should the criminal defense lawyer do to challenge the prosecutor's forensic evidence? Here are some practical tips on how to use the law and facts to help.
- Defending a Criminal Case Using Forensic ExpertsHiring a qualified expert might be the only way a criminal defense attorney can challenge the prosecutor's forensic evidence. Whether the hired expert testifies or simply prepares the lawyer to cross-examine the opposing expert, they may be the lynchpin to a successful defense.
- What Happens when New Jersey DYFS Comes to Your HouseGetting a call from the Division of Youth and Family Services can be scary and confusing.
- How To Appeal a New Jersey DYFS FindingFollowing and investigation by the DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services), they will issue a ruling of substantiated, established, not established, or unfounded.
- Common Mistakes Parents Make with New Jersey DYFSSo you received a call from the Division of Youth and Family Services and they want to investigate your child’s wellbeing and care.
- Should We Allow Our Clients to Tell Us the "Whole Truth"Allowing clients to tell us the whole truth is always a tactical decision. We never want to limit their ability to defend themselves in a future trial. Consequently, criminal defense lawyers should exercise caution when eliciting information from their clients.
- University Discipline . . . The Illusion of Due ProcessHigher education institutions, like colleges and universities, have student codes of conduct. A student may be prosecuted by their university for violating such a code. However, when the university prosecution is linked to a criminal investigation the student is in grave danger of self-incrimination.
- Hearsay Exception: Why All Lawyers Should Love "Learned Treatises"The learned treatise is the foundation for cross-examining the opposing expert witness. Here are some ideas on how to execute this strategy.
- Does the Supreme Court Rule Defense Counsel Must Now Hire "Believable" Expert Witnesses?The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defense counsel must avail themselves of court-appointed funding for experts in order to render effective assistance of counsel.
- All Criminal Law Articles
Criminal Code by State
- Alabama - Title 13A
- Alaska - Title 11
- Arizona - Title 13
- Arkansas - Title 5
- California Penal Code
- Colorado - Title 18
- Connecticut - Title 53a
- Delaware - Title 11
- District of Columbia - Title 22
- Florida - Title XLVI
- Georgia - Title 16
- Idaho - Title 18
- Illinois - Chapter 720
- Indiana - Title 35
- Iowa - Title XVI
- Kansas - Chapter 21
- Kentucky - Titles XL, L
- Maine - Titles 17 and Titles 17A
- Maryland - Crimes and Punishments
- Massachusetts - Title I
- Minnesota - Chapters 609-624
- Mississippi - Title 97
- Missouri - Title XXXVIII
- Montana - Title 45
- Nebraska - Chapter 28
- Nevada - Title 15
- New Hampshire - Title LXII
- New Jersey - Title 2C
- New Mexico - Chapter 30
- New York - Penal
- North Carolina - Chapter 14
- North Dakota - Title 12.1
- Ohio - Title 29
- Oklahoma - Title 21
- Oregon - Chapters 161-169
- Pennsylvania- Title 18
- Rhode Island - Title 11
- South Carolina - Title 16
- South Dakota - Title 22
- Tennessee - Title 39
- Texas Penal Code
- Utah - Title 76
- Vermont - Title 13
- Virginia - Title 18.2
- Washington - Title 9
- West Virginia - Chapter 61
- Wisconsin - Chapters 938-951
- Wyoming - Title 6
Criminal Law - US
- ABA Criminal Justice Section
The American Bar Association is a national organization of attorneys dedicated to improving the legal system. The Criminal Justice Section contains news and events for anyone interested in the penal system.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics
BJS collects facts and figures relating to crime in the United States. Here you can learn about the prevalence of crimes involving violence, property damage, drugs, human trafficking, identity theft, and more.
- Crimes and Criminal Procedures, Title 18 - United States Code
The USC consists of all federal laws in the United States. Title 18 deals with crimes, punishments, and criminal procedure. This searchable online version is presented by Cornell Law School in Ithaca, NY.
- Criminal Law Florida
Individuals who are charged with a criminal offense in Florida should have a strong understanding of the criminal justice system and the possible defenses that they may be able to raise.
- Criminal Law Minnesota
When defendants are charged with the violation of a criminal law in Minnesota, it is important that they understand the nature of the charges against them, the possible penalties and the criminal procedures that may affect them.
- Differences between Civil and Criminal Law in the US
This concise essay by Dr. Ronald B. Standler describes how criminal prosecutions and private civil lawsuits differ in terms of protections and potential liabilities for defendants.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
The FBI website is a great resource for information about the investigation of terrorism and other federal crimes. The “Most Wanted” section allows visitors to provide tips about victims and fugitives in high profile cases.
- Federal Rules of Evidence
Cornell Law School sponsors this indexed version of the court rules governing the presentation of evidence in federal court. These rules apply in criminal and civil cases.
- Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manuals
The sentencing guidelines are rules meant to create a uniform system for imposing punishment in federal criminal court. Check back regularly for the latest updates to the manuals.
- National Center for Victims of Crime
With so much focus on the accused, the victims of crimes sometimes feel neglected by the system. The National Center for Victims of Crime is designed for victims and advocates looking to engage one another, find support, and spread awareness.
- National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS)
National Criminal Justice Reference Service offers extensive reference and referral services information to support research, policy, and program development to anyone interested in crime, victim assistance, and public safety including policymakers, researchers, and the general public.
- Office for Victims of Crime (OVC)
The OVC administers the Crime Victims Fund, providing substantial funding to state victim assistance compensation programs and services that help victims heal. For those looking to pursue a career as a victim’s advocate, the site offers online training and education.
- United States Department of Justice
The Justice Department, led by the Attorney General, is the federal agency in charge of enforcing federal laws. Their website is constantly updated with news articles, blog posts, and other criminal justice resources.
Criminal Law - Europe
Criminal Law - International
Criminal Law Organizations
- Coalition for the International Criminal Court
- European Criminal Law Academic Network (ECLAN)
- Guide to Electronic Resources for International Law - ASIL
- International Criminal Court (ICC)
- International Criminal Law Bureau (ICLB)
- International Criminal Law Network (ICLN)
- International Criminal Law Society (ICLS)
- UN - Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice