Criminal Law

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.

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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

  • Stop And Frisk Laws
    According to the United States Constitution, every American citizen has the right to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • How Are People Charged as an Accomplice?
    Accomplice liability arises when a person helps another commit a crime with the intent of providing such assistance.
  • Fleeing and Eluding Offenses in Florida
    In the State of Florida, fleeing and eluding a police officer is a felony offense that carries some harsh penalties, including a mandatory adjudication of guilt and a mandatory driver's license suspension, which can range from one to five years. This article outlines the proscribed conduct, the varying degrees of this particular offense, and its associated penalties.
  • Website Ripoffs: How to Get a Refund from an Uncooperative Website Owner
    Most of us have fallen for it at one time or another. A website offers a “free” or reduced fee trial for its services, but asks for a credit card upfront. It tells you that your membership will automatically renew if you do not cancel before the end of your free trial. You use the service, but do not want to pay for it, so you try to cancel and get charged anyway.
  • What Is Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?
    Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the legal standard that the prosecution must meet in order to successfully find a criminal defendant guilty of a crime. This standard applies to each element of the crime.
  • Arson - Why Your Criminal Defense Attorney Matters
    Arson cases can either be charged in federal or state court. In Minnesota, the most common arson charge is arson in the first degree, which charges that the person intentionally set fire to his home or other dwelling, usually for the insurance money or some other financial reason. This is a serious charge that, if convicted, will likely result in at least a 4-year prison sentence. If you or a family member is facing charges of arson, you need an attorney experienced in handling arson cases.
  • Escalating and Deescalating Murder Charges
    On June 5, 2011, there was a case of a transgendered female who was out for a night on the town when she and some of friends were harassed by a group of young men. It started out with harsh words and eventually descended into violence. When she walked away, she was assaulted by one of the men, and she took a pair of scissors from her purse. She stabbed the assaulter, leading to his death.
  • Is There a Such Thing as Marital Rape?
    Marital rape is nonconsensual sex between two spouses. Marital rape is believed to occur in significant numbers but is underreported. However, this sexual crime may be treated differently than other sexual crimes, depending on the law of the jurisdiction where the charge is filed.
  • When Can the Police Stop me on the Street? What are my Rights?
    Police will often use a person’s presence in a high-crime area, coupled with unprovoked flight as sufficient to justify an officer’s brief, investigative stop. Illinois courts have decided that this was consistent with previous decisions recognizing a citizen’s right to ignore the police, as it found that unprovoked flight is not simply refusing to cooperate but is suspicious conduct that allows the police to investigate.
  • Committing Offenses on the Internet – Internet Crime
    When a crime is allegedly committed using the internet the first question is always, “Where should this case be handled?” Should it be in the state where the offender committed the offense? Should it be where the victim lives? Should it be somewhere else like in federal court?
  • All Criminal Law Articles

Criminal Code by State

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.

  • 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

Organizations Regarding Criminal Law

Publications Regarding Criminal Law


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