GENERAL ASPECTS OF CRIMINAL LAW

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1 ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE GENERAL ASPECTS OF CRIMINAL LAW I. Introduction to Criminal Law A. Understanding the complexities of criminal law 1. The justice system in the United States has been established by our legislative bodies to establish classifications of crimes based on severity, to distinguish between types of crimes, civil offenses, and moral wrongs. 2. Criminal defendants have many more protections than those who commit civil or moral wrongs, because criminal defendants have considerably more to lose through criminal punishment. a. This is why the burden of proof in a criminal trial is beyond a reasonable doubt, but in civil trials it is fifty percent plus a feather or by a preponderance of the evidence.

2 B. Defining crimes, and criminal conduct 1. Most people informally define a crime as an act that is deeply wrong, that is worthy of strong community disapproval, and that calls for a punitive sanction. 2. Formal definitions of crime result from the criminal law of federal, state, or local legal systems. a. What is truly a crime is any act or omission that is forbidden by the law as a violation of the public interest. b. A crime involves social harm and requires vindication through a public process. c. It is prosecuted by government attorneys who represent the community as a whole, not the individuals who have been victimized by the specific offense. (1) Criminal cases have names such as the State of Maine v. Jones or United States v. Smith. 2

3 (2) This reflects that the defendant is accused of violating the laws of an entire society and must answer to that society in return. 3. An important aspect of crime and criminal conduct is punishment. a. Whereas a person who commits a civil wrong may have to pay damages to compensate the wrong, a person convicted of a crime is punished. b. Punishment can take many forms, all of which carry one essential characteristic that distinguishes criminal from civil wrong doing: (1) The condemnation and stigma that accompanies the conviction of a crime. 4. Interpretation of how a law is written. a. Letter of the Law is the exact way the law is written or what it says. b. Spirit of the Law legislative intent why was the law written? Police must use common sense approach 3

4 5. The nature and aims of civil judgments and criminal sanctions help to explain why they are handled though separate court systems. C. Civil wrongs or torts 1. A civil wrong can be classified as a tort, which is a wrongful act that results in an injury or a breach of contract that leaves the injured party entitled to compensation. 2. Criminal and civil law both involve holding individuals accountable for actions that the law deems inappropriate. 3. There are two significant differences between the consequences of criminal liability and civil liability. a. First, a crime is committed against the community at large, but a tort is a wrong against specific individuals only. (1) The pursuit of a tort remedy involves no government action being brought against individual defendants. 4

5 (2) Action is brought by private citizens against another individual or individuals who have violated civil law. (3) A class action lawsuit involves several people taking legal action against a person or corporation who has wronged them. b. Second, the consequences of tort liability are less than the consequences of criminal liability. (1) A party involved in a civil suit does not face the possibility of punishment, such as loss of liberty or life. (2) Punitive damages in a civil action is not considered equivalent to incarceration or the stigma of conviction of a crime. 4. An individual's single act may constitute both a crime and a tort and thus may be punishable under criminal and civil law. 5

6 II. STATE AND FEDERAL CRIMES A. Every state and local government, along with the federal government, has a set of laws defining which acts are considered as criminal offenses. B. The federal government and individual state legistative bodies may enact criminal laws. 1. Some acts, such as simple assault, disorderly conduct, drunk driving, and shoplifting, can be prosecuted only in a state court. a. Exception: when they occur on federal property; such as a national park or a military installation. 2. Acts, such as failure to pay federal taxes, mail fraud, espionage, and international smuggling, can be prosecuted only in a federal court. 3. Crimes such as illegal possession of dangerous drugs and bank robbery, can violate both state and federal law and can be prosecuted in either state or federal court. 6

7 III. GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS A. A crime is an act that the government forbids and that the government can punish. 1. Almost all crimes require an act, accompanied by a guilty state of mind. a. The guilty state of mind means that the prohibited act must be done intentionally, knowingly, or willfully. b. These two requirements are called criminal act and criminal intent. 2. In most cases, mere carelessness is not considered a guilty state of mind. a. For example, accidentally leaving a stove on that causes a fire would not constitute a crime of arson. b. There is an act (burning another person's property) but the guilty state of mind (maliciousness) is absent. B. Basic elements or requirements necessary to establish criminal culpability (responsibility). 7

8 1. Criminal liability requires a concurrence, or unity, of two general criteria: a. First, there needs to be an act or physical element, known as the actus reus or the criminal act. (1) The physical act must be voluntary and has to cause social harm. b. Second, there needs to be a certain mental state or intent, known as the mens rea. This mental state is often reffered to as criminal intent. C. A person commits an act based on one of four types of mental states. 1. Acting with purpose: a. The person acts purposely with respect to the expected result or conduct. (1) It is the voluntary wish to act in a certain way or produce a certain result. 8

9 (2) A man who buys a gun and ammunition, points the gun at a victim, and fires the gun has manifested a purpose to kill the victim. 2. Acting knowingly: a. A person knowingly causes a result if they know or are practically certain that their conduct will cause this result. (1) A person fires 50 rounds into a crowd of people and kills five persons. 3. Acting recklessly: (a) They knowingly killed the victims if they were aware or practically certain that firing the weapon would likely result in one or more deaths. a. A person acts recklessly if they voluntarily ignore a substantial and unjustified risk that a certain circumstance exists or will result from the reckless conduct. 9

10 b. A risk is considered substantial and unjustified if a reasonable law-abiding citizen considers it a clear deviation from how a reasonable person would behave. 4. Acting negligently: a. A person acts negligently if they are aware that a substantial and unjustifiable risk exists or will result from the negligent conduct and proceed to act anyway. b. As with recklessness, the risk involved for negligence must be substantial and unjustifiable. c. The difference between negligence and recklessness is that the reckless person consciously disregards the risk, but a negligent person does so unknowingly. (1) A jury determines whether someone is negligent by deciding whether the risk taken would have been taken by a reasonable person in the same situation. 10

11 D. A person who commits a single act can be held to answer for both a criminal and civil wrong. 1. Example: John purposely sets fire to Tanya's store. a. The state may file criminal charges against Paul for the statutory offense of arson. b. Tanya may also bring a separate civil action (lawsuit) against John to recover the fire damages to her store. E. Motive is the reason why the a person performs the act. 1. Motive usually means the emotion that prompts a person to commit the act. a. Motive is not an element required to be proven in order to obtain a conviction for a criminal offense. b. Motive is often important as a matter of proof because it may help to identify the perpetrator of a crime or explain why a suspect may have acted in a certain way. 11

12 (1) In murder, the motive is the reason a person kills someone (for revenge, to obtain money, etc.). F. Intent is a person s conscious desire to commit an act and is called Mens rea. 1. Mens rea is that state of mind that a person has at the time that he or she does the act or acts that constitute the commission of a crime. 2. Mens rea is also referred to as the guilty mind or a persons culpability in committing an act. 3. Mens rea or guilty state of mind deals with the level of awareness involved in performing an act. a. Was the act done intentionally or in a reckless manner? (1) State of mind is what distiguishes a crime from a civil tort (wrong). 4. There are three types of intent (state of mind) that can be involved in proving a persons culpability in committing a crime. 12

13 a. General intent - also called presumed intent. (1) Legal interpretation: a person is presumed to intend the ordinary consequences of his voluntary act. (a) In the case of armed robbery, the intent is obvious by the action involved, and what is said during the crime. (2) Criminal intent can involve nothing more than the intent to commit the act regardless of whether one knows the act is wrong. (a) Ignorance of the law excuses no one. b. Specific intent is the mental purpose to accomplish a specific act prohibited by law. (1) Specific intent cannot be proved just from the commission of the general act listed in the statute. 13

14 (a) It must be proved apart from the physical conditions of the criminal act. (2) Specific intent is a special intent in the mind of the perpetrator, and it is an element apart from the physical elements of the crime. (3) The most common usage of specific intent is intent to cause the result, careless disregard of the consequences, or gross negligence. (4) Larceny or theft, for example, requires the taking and carrying away of the property of another, and the defendant's mental state as to this act must be established. (a) In addition it must be shown that there was an intent to steal the property. 14

15 (5) Specific intent is the hardest type of intent to prove because it is not always easy to infer the intent from the action performed. c. Transferred intent holds a person criminally liable even when the consequence of his or her action is not what the individual actually intended. (1) If a person intends to harm one person, but the harmful action mistakenly injures or kills another, the required criminal element of intent instead applies to the harm committed against the unintended victim. (2) A man fires a gun out of his car window with the intent of killing a rival gang member, but the bullet misses the gang member and kills a baby, he is guilty under the doctrine of transferred intent. G. A few crimes are called strict liability offenses. 1. These crimes do not require a guilty state of mind. 15

16 a. The act itself is criminal, regardless of the knowledge or intent of the person committing the act. (1) Example: the law makes it a strict liability crime to sell alcoholic beverages to minors. (2) This is true regardless of whether or not the seller knew the buyer was underage. 2. Most often, strict liability statutes are limited to crimes that don't carry severe penalties or to crimes that are part of a larger attempt to regulate some area of conduct. IV. GENERAL RULES OF CRIMINAL LAW A. Classification of specific conduct as being Criminal has significance for two reasons. 1. First, only crimes can result in loss of liberty through incarceration. 2. Second, civil offenses, in contrast, may result in punitive damages but not incarceration. 16

17 B. The United States Constitution and the Constitutions of individual states require that special rights and protections be afforded to an accused criminal. 1. This can be seen in several specific Amendments in the Bill of Rights, such as: a. The Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination and double jeopardy. b. The Sixth Amendment's rights to a speedy and public trial, trial by jury, the confrontation and cross-examination of witnesses, and counsel. c. The Eighth Amendment's protection against excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishment. d. The Fourteenth Amendment's right to due process of law applies to both the federal government and state governments. 17

18 C. The most common way to classify crimes is according to their punishment. Crimes can be broken into three major categories: felonies, misdemeanors, and petty offenses. 1. A felony is any serious crime that is punishable by more than a year of imprisonment in a state penitentiary or by death. a. Felonies include, but are not limited to, various degrees of homicide, rape, robbery, possession or distribution of illegal narcotics, and auto theft. b. A crime does not have to be violent or even be perpetrated against a specific individual victim to constitute a felony. (1) White-collar crime covers several types of felonies relating to dishonesty in commercial matters and is generally nonviolent. c. The majority of modern jurisdictions divide felonies into various categories or degrees, in order to treat some offenses as more serious than others. 18

19 (1) In homicide cases, a person may be charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter in jurisdictions that make these distinctions. (a) The reason for these distinctions is the level of punishment. 2. Modern law defines a misdemeanor as a crime that is less serious than a felony and is usually punishable by fines, penalties, or incarceration of less than one year. a. Misdemeanors include offenses like shoplifting and disorderly conduct. b. A person who is convicted of a misdemeanor and incarcerated usually serves his or her sentence in a local or county jail up to one year. c. Punishment may also include in-patient drug rehabilitation programs. 19

20 3. A petty offense is any insignificant crime involving very minor misconduct. a. Petty offenses often consist of violations that protect the public welfare. b. They are usually called violations or infractions rather than crimes. (1) A common example of a petty offense is a minor traffic violation. (2) Petty offenses are usually not punishable by incarceration, but by monetary fines or community service requirements. (3) The stigma attached to a conviction for a petty offense is usually minimal. D. In modern law, the line drawn between felonies and misdemeanors can be quite unclear. 1. This is partly because many jurisdictions have enacted laws that allow a number of offenses to be prosecuted as felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the circumstances. 20

21 2. Some factors that a prosecutor may consider in deciding whether to charge an offense as a felony or a misdemeanor can include: a. Prior offenses committed by the accused. b. Seriousness of the offense. c. The number of victims involved. d. The age of the perpetrator. 3. In plea bargaining, a defense attorney will often attempt to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor when this option exists. E. Crimes are made up of elements. 1. In addition to proving any guilty state of mind required, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that every element of the crime was committed. a. Example: robbery is defined as the unlawful taking and carrying away of goods or money from someone's person by force or intimidation (fear). 21

22 b. The elements of robbery are: (1) the taking and carrying away of goods or money, (2) the taking from someone's person, and (3) by the use of force or intimidation. V. THE ACTUS REUS (CRIMINAL ACT) OF CRIMINAL RESPONSIBILITY. A. The actus reus is the physical action that a Person must take toward the completion of the crime in order to be responsible for a criminal offense. 1. The actus reus element is any act or omission containing the ingredients of causation and social harm. a. In order to be responsible for a particular crime, a person must in some way perform the act required to meet the elements for that crime. b. The actus reus is different from hopes, desires, or wishes. 22

23 (1) A person may wish to commit a crime and may think about that crime often, but until he or she actually carries out that action, the crime has not been committed. B. Actus reus usually consists of a voluntary action. 1. A person is usually not responsible for an action over which he or she had no control unless it was negligent. a. For the act to be voluntary, the defendant must have possessed sufficient free will to exercise choice and be responsible for his or her conduct. b. If a person has acted voluntarily and later regrets the act, he or she is still held responsible. 2. Conditions such as mental illness or extreme youth can diminish a persons criminal responsibility. 23

24 3. To fully understand actus reus, it is important to understand the difference between voluntary actions and mere thoughts. a. A person cannot be punished for thinking about committing a crime. b. If a person actually acts on that thought and commits the physical acts connected to the thought, they will be liable for the crime committed. C. Criminal negligence and omissions as acts 1. Omissions are legally viewed as actions that can lead to criminal liability, usually in one of two situations. a. The first situation occurs where the definition of a crime specifically designates an omission as punishable. (1) Examples: failure to register for the draft or failure to file an income tax return. 24

25 b. The second situation occurs where a person has an affirmative duty to act in some way but fails to do so, and such failure causes a criminal result. (1) Example: laws require parents and legal guardians to take care of children in a way that will not injure them or threaten their well being. (a) If a parent stopped feeding a child and that child died from starvation, that parent would be criminally liable. (b) The omission of necessary care for a child would constitute the actus reus of the crime. 2. A legal duty to act can arise from a relationship. a. There are legal duties in relationships between a parent and a child or between a doctor and a patient. 25

26 b. A legal duty may also be imposed by law, such as the requirement that a driver must stop and help if he or she is involved in an automobile accident. c. It can also arise from a contractual relationship, such as that imposed upon a lifeguard or nurse. 3. Even though most people would feel obligated to act if someone's life were in danger, there are numerous judicial decisions holding that there was no criminal liability when a person stood by and did nothing to help someone else in jeopardy. D. Verbal expressions as acts 1. Under certain circumstances, mere words can constitute the actus reus of a criminal act. a. Such words are so offensive that they can constitute a threat or cause further physical actions that society views as a social harm. 26

27 (1) Making obscene remarks in a restaurant about a woman in the presence of her husband and children could provoke a violent reaction. b. Where and how a person makes a statement has a lot to do with whether the statement could be considered a criminal act. (1) Yelling Fire! in a crowded theater can be criminally prosecuted under some circumstances. E. Possession as an act (a) Yelling such a statement could cause such a panic among the crowd that the patrons might be injured or killed rushing out of the theater. 1. All jurisdictions have statutes for possessory offenses, which criminalize the possession of certain items or substances. 27

28 a. A person can be guilty of a crime requiring possession without any further act than possession of the prohibited article. (1) Possession of illegal drugs and possession of criminal instruments such as burglar's tools both constitute criminal acts. 2. Actual possession is usually required: a. A house guest at a dwelling where illegal narcotics are found would not be in actual possession of the drugs, and thus would not be guilty of the crime of possession. 3. To prove a possessory offense, the prosecutor must prove that the accused person knowingly possessed the illegal item. a. Possession is a criminal act if the possessor either knowingly obtained the object possessed, or knew they were in control of it for a sufficient period to have been able to terminate possession. 28

29 4. Possessory offenses frequently involve circumstances where it is likely that an individual will use what he or she possesses to ultimately commit a crime. a. This explains the reason for their existence: to deter further criminal activity. b. By holding someone criminally liable for possessing the tools to commit a crime, further social harm may be eliminated. VI. PRELIMINARY CRIMES A. Certain types of behavior take place before the commission of a crime but are complete crimes in themselves. Each offense can be punished even if the harm intended never occurred. 1. Solicitation a. A number of states make it a crime for a person to solicit (that is, ask, command, urge, or advise) another person to commit a crime. (1) Example: Asking someone to buy alcohol for a minor. 29

30 2. Attempt a. In most states, an attempt to commit a crime is in itself a crime. b. To be guilty of the crime of attempt, the accused must have both intended to commit a crime and taken some substantial step toward committing the crime. (1) Mere preparation to commit a crime is not enough. c. When sorneone performs all of the elements of a crime but fails to achieve the criminal result, an attempt has occurred. (1) Example: A person intends to shoot and kill someone but misses or merely wounds the intended victim, the person is guilty of attempted murder. 30

31 3. Conspiracy a. A conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime. (1) The designation of conspiracy as a crime is meant to prevent other crimes and to strike against criminal activity by groups. (2) It also allows police to arrest conspirators before they come dangerously close to completing the crime. b. An example of criminal conspiracy would be, a drug dealer, asks his associate, to kill another dealer in his neighborhood. (1) If one of them takes some steps to commit the crime, both are guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. (2) The murder does not need to be attempted or accomplished. 31

32 c. In most states and in federal law, an overt act - that is, the act is committed open to view - is required for conviction on a conspiracy charge. VII. PARTIES TO A CRIME A. Principals 1. The person who actually commits a crime is called the principal. a. All principals are equally guilty of the offense. 2. There are five conditions that make a person a principal in a crime: a. Committing the crime. b. Aiding and abetting another to commit the crime. (1) Aid means to assist and it can be done innocently without any implication of guilt knowledge or felonious intent. 32

33 (2) Abet means assistance accompanied by knowledge of the wrongful purpose of the committing the crime. (a) There is a clear consciousness of guilt at the time assistance is given. c. Not being present at the time of the crime but, advising and encouraging the commission of the crime. d. All persons who counsel children under a certain age limit (14 years in most states), and the mentally ill to commit a crime. e. Forcing another to commit a crime by the use of intimidation (threats of great bodily harm). B. Accomplices 1. Anyone who helps the principal complete the crime may be charged as an accomplice. a. An accomplice is anyone who is liable to prosecution for the identical offense charged against the defendant on trial. 33

34 2. An accomplice is some on who knowingly and willingly associates with others in the commission of a criminal offense, and who intentionally assists another person in the commission of a crime. a. Accomplices aid and abet another principal in the commission of a crime when they assist or facilitate that person in accomplishing the crime. b. An accomplice possesses the intent to support or encourage the commission of the crime. c. A person could be an accomplice to a crime through many actions that help or promote the crime's commission, including: (1) Offering words of encouragement. (2) Providing a weapon to be used during the offense. (3) Being a lookout during the criminal act. (4) Driving the getaway car. 34

35 C. Accessory after the fact 1. Every person who, after a crime has been committed, harbors, conceals, or aids a principal in such crime: a. with intent that said principal may avoid or escape arrest, conviction or punishment, b. having knowledge that said principal has committed such crime or has been charged with such crime or convicted thereof, c. is an accessory to such crime. 2. An accessory after the fact has nothing to do with the actual commission of the crime itself. 3. Some states such as California require the crime involved to be a felony in order to be an accessory after the fact. 4. Accessories after the fact are responsible only for their own actions, not for the original crime. 35

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