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.


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

  • How Does Parole Work?
    Parole is a complex system in the penal system that allows convicted prisoners to start a new life with supervision. Historically, the term parole meant by voice or by your word, and that is exactly what it is today. A person on parole is still serving their sentence, but they are allowed to live on the outside, provided they follow specific rules. The rules for parole change from state to state, behavior of the inmate, and the severity of the charge.
  • Buying a Car? Be Aware of Spot Delivery Scam
    This type of car buying scam gets its name from purchasers who are sold vehicles “on the spot.” The dealership says that the buyer has been approved for the vehicle, but he or she is later told that the financing fell through. There may be some consumer protections to help affected buyers, and there are certainly ways to avoid this common scam.
  • Inaccuracy in Georgia Breathalyzers
    What Can Interfere with Breath Testing?
  • Understanding Drug Crimes and Possession of Marijuana in Boise, Idaho
    The simplest drug crime is possession of a controlled substance, like marijuana. In order to convict, a prosecutor must show that the accused did more than just touch the drug. One conviction was reversed when the defendant said that he had touched the heroin only long enough to throw it away. He had found it in a friend's pocket before taking him for emergency medical treatment.
  • How The Government Can Take Your Property
    A new bill has been introduced to end forfeiture funding of the DEA’s Marijuana Suppression programs. The bill is a bipartisan effort to modify was has become a widely abused system of asset forfeiture from innocent citizens, who in many cases have not even been charged with any crimes.
  • When Guests Overstay Their Welcome, How Can You Get Them Out of Your Apartment?
    It happens to most of us at some point or another: a house guest comes to stay for a while, but ends up freeloading far longer than expected. When this happens, what can you do to get your pesky house guest to leave? Does the law offer any solutions?
  • Can I Get My Name Removed from an Offender List?
    If a person commits certain sexual crimes in North Carolina, his or her name can be added to a sex offender registry. Being added to this list requires the convicted individual to register his or her name, address and other information so that his or her whereabouts are known by the public and law enforcement.
  • Hidden Provisions at the Dealership - Is This a Case of Consumer Fraud?
    Some auto dealerships have developed a bad reputation for committing fraudulent acts or attempting to trick their customers into making purchases that include hidden provisions. Auto dealerships must comply with a number of state and federal laws pertaining to entering into sales contracts with buyers.
  • What Happens if I Write a Bad Check?
    Through a simple arithmetic error or forgetting to jot down a check that you sent, you may wind up being criminally prosecuted and paying hefty fines. A bad check is one in which there are insufficient funds in order to cover the amount of the check. It can also be because the check is written on an account that no longer exists.
  • What Is Your Liability If Someone Hacks Your PC and Uses Information for Criminal Purposes?
    Large-scale security breaches receive massive media attention. Whether a person can be criminally or civilly liable for another’s actions while using their equipment or connection depends on the particular circumstances involved in the case.
  • 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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