What is Criminal Law?

Criminal law is the area of law that relates to prohibited conduct in society. When government leaders take steps to ban certain actions, they create crimes. Criminal law is the area of law that involves enforcing criminal law as well as defending against allegations of violations of criminal law.

The purpose of outlawing conduct is to protect society. Law makers typically pass a law with the belief that it’s for the public good. Criminal laws must be applied evenly to everyone. Lawmakers can’t make a law that targets only one person. The purposes of punishing criminal offenders include retribution, deterring certain behaviors, preventing additional offenses and rehabilitation of offenders.

What makes a law a crime?

An act isn’t a crime just because government officials prohibit the behavior. Instead, a behavior is a crime because of the penalties that are attached to a violation. In the case of a crime, a person’s freedom is usually on the line.

Each crime carries a maximum penalty. That penalty is the most amount of time that a person can spend in jail if they’re convicted of the offense. A criminal offense often has other penalties such as a fine, probation and placing a record of the offense on a person’s public, criminal history. However, the distinguishing characteristic of criminal law is that a person who commits a criminal offense might spend time in jail or prison.

Felony and misdemeanor offenses

Crimes are classified as felony offenses and misdemeanor offenses. Typically, a crime is a felony if the maximum possible penalty is more than one year in jail. A felony usually brings the possibility of going to a state prison rather than a local jail. A misdemeanor is a crime that carries a maximum penalty of less than one year in jail.

Some states have low-level misdemeanors that don’t carry the possibility of jail time. For example, in Michigan, a minor who drives with a blood alcohol content is guilty of a misdemeanor that’s punishable by only a fine and community service. Each state may have unique classifications for a few types of offenses. For example, for certain felony offenses in Texas, offenders face only the possibility of confinement in a state jail for not less than 180 days or more than two years.

Federal, state and local crimes

In the United States, all levels of government can create crimes. The federal government, state governments and even local authorities can create crimes. It’s also up to the unit of government that creates the law to enforce it. If you’re charged with a federal crime, you answer to it in federal court. If a local unit of government charges someone with a crime, they have to file the paperwork in the appropriate court and bring their own attorney to pursue prosecution of the offense.

A smaller unit of government can’t invalidate a higher unit’s law

A state or local law can be more restrictive than a federal law, but a state or local government cannot invalidate a federal law. For example, if the state government makes it illegal to possess marijuana, a city government can’t come along and invalidate that law. While the city can make a policy that says their law enforcement officers aren’t going to enforce the law, they can’t nullify a state or federal law.

Stages in a criminal law case

A criminal case starts with an arrest or the filing of formal charges. Ultimately, it’s up to an attorney for the government to decide to charge a person with a crime. While the police can make an initial arrest, a person doesn’t formally face charges until the state’s attorney files them.

An arraignment is the first court appearance. A judge or magistrate formally reads the accused person the details of the charges they’re facing. They set a bond amount and conditions of bond. In rare and serious cases, they may order law enforcement to hold the person without bond until resolution of the case.

The defense has time and power to gather information about the case. The defense can serve a discovery demand that requires the state’s attorney to produce evidence about the case. The state’s attorney always has an ethical obligation to provide the defense with evidence that might be favorable to their defense.

If the parties reach a resolution, the case may not go to trial. The state might agree to dismiss the charges, they might agree to dismiss the charges with conditions, or they might reach a plea resolution. If the parties can’t resolve the case, a judge or jury may hear the evidence at a formal trial. If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, the case ends. If they find the defendant guilty, the case proceeds to sentencing.

What does a criminal lawyer do?

Advises clients about the potential consequences of a course of action

A criminal lawyer helps their client understand criminal laws. They also help the client understand how their actions may or may not violate a criminal law. A defense attorney might help their client understand whether a proposed course of action is a crime. An attorney for the state might help law enforcement officers understand best practices for enforcing the law.

Helps their client present their case or present a defense

A prosecutor or district attorney presents evidence and pursues prosecution of cases on behalf of the unit of government that they represent. They make decisions about whether to extend a plea offer. They present the evidence on behalf of the state at trial.

A defense attorney helps their client present a defense. A defense attorney gathers evidence for their client. They evaluate the case in order to determine viable defenses. If they need to file pretrial motions, they make sure they file the motions in the right way.

Protects their client’s constitutional rights

Citizens have constitutional rights. No unit of government can pass a law that violates a person’s right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure. Law enforcement also can’t keep a person in jail for an indefinite period of time. Criminal attorneys must know how the constitution and criminal law intersect. They must be aware of constitutional implications of law as they go about their work and advocate for their clients as necessary in order to protect and defend their constitutional rights.

Why practice criminal law

A criminal law practice requires diverse skills and a capacity for memorization. It’s also exciting. For lawyers who like frequent court appearances and the occasional appearance on television, criminal law is a good fit. Criminal lawyers must be comfortable in high pressure situations. They also must be able to think on their feet. There often isn’t time to look something up or seek a second opinion when they must act in a matter of seconds to move to admit evidence or make an objection.

Criminal law is a good fit for lawyers who don’t like to sit still. Lawyers who choose to focus on state laws in a small geographic region can expect to have multiple court hearings a week. They can expect to conduct trials and other contested hearings.

Lawyers who focus on crime also have the academic challenge of building a case. They review police reports and interview witnesses. They examine possible defenses and determine whether or not they apply to the case. Being an effective criminal lawyer requires a well rounded mix of academic skills and oral advocacy. Criminal lawyers also benefit from having a high capacity for rote memorization.

Writing and speaking

Criminal lawyers can’t rely on speaking or writing alone. A criminal lawyer must write clearly in order to properly file motions and help the court understand nuanced issues of law. They must also have the trial advocacy skills to conduct complex trials. Whether a lawyer advocates on behalf of the state or for an accused, they must also have the interpersonal skills to interact with the other side and the jury.

Why Become a Criminal Lawyer – Making crime into a career

Crime and punishment is serious business. Society depends on state prosecutors and district attorneys to advocate for the safety of the public. At the same time, defendants rely on their attorneys to protect their rights and advocate on their behalf. That makes criminal law a high stakes affair.

For attorneys who enjoy writing and the courtroom, criminal law is an option to explore. Criminal attorneys spend time investigating and using logic to evaluate their case and prepare a defense. They file motions and other paperwork and argue cases in court. For attorneys who love thinking on their feet, criminal law is a worthy career choice.