Criminal Law Basics

Every average person understands what a crime is but only to the extent that it gets you in trouble with the law and could get you arrested. But not many understand the legal concept of a crime. 

It may not be possible to know everything about criminal law unless you choose law as a career path. But it is essential to understand some of its basics because there is always a chance you could get into a situation where you face a criminal charge. 

“One in every three adults in America has had a brush with the law, so the thought of finding yourself having to deal with a criminal charge is not farfetched,” says Ryan McPhie of the Grand Canyon Law Group

What Is a Crime?

A crime is a violation of the law. Crimes can be in the form of actions such as stealing, fraud, or striking another person. At other times it can be in the form of inactions such as child neglect, failure to pay child support, or withholding important information resulting in harm to another person, or that is considered an offense against society. 

In most cases, crimes will have two core features; the actus reus and the mens rea. Actus reus is the wrongful act or omission, and the mens rea is the culpable state of mind. 

To illustrate, suppose a person makes a false statement in court while under oath. In that case, the element of actus reus is met. If the person making the statement did not know that the information was false, the element of men’s rea is not present, meaning the person is not guilty of the crime. If the false statement was made knowingly, the element of mens rea is met, making the action a crime.

Crimes and Laws

Traditionally crimes were defined through common law borrowed from British law. Common laws are developed through court rulings made concerning a particular matter over time. Currently, most crimes are defined by legislation where lawmakers set the parameters for offenses and suitable penalties. 

Congress creates laws for federal crimes, while individual state legislatures set parameters for state crimes and applicable punishments. as a result, states may have different classifications for the same offense and different penalties. 

All crimes have specific elements that the prosecution must prove to get a conviction. For example, California Penal Code § 484(a) (2020) stipulates that anyone who feloniously steals, takes, carries, leads, or drives away another person’s property will be guilty of theft. But the prosecution will have to prove the elements of theft stipulated in the statute, which include establishing that another owned the property in question, the property was taken without the owner’s consent, taking the property deprived the owner of it, and that the offender moved the property for some distance or kept it for any period.

Penalties for Crimes

Penalties for crimes will depend on many factors, such as the nature of the offense, the circumstances surrounding it, and the offender’s characteristics. For example, if they are a repeat offender, there is a chance they could face a stiffer penalty after a conviction than a first-time offender. 

Most statutes do not have rigid sentencing guidelines. Instead, they have a variable guideline with minimum and maximum sentence that allows the judge to pass judgments based on their perception of the severity of the offense. 

Defending a crime is not as simple as it may sound on paper, so it is best always to have a lawyer with you, especially if the possible outcomes are severe.

Interesting Related Article: “The Different Types Of Criminal Lawyers