Street Law: A Course in Practical Law

Chapter 8: Introduction to Criminal Law

Chapter Overviews

General Considerations Every crime is made up of certain elements. At trial, each element of a particular crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict a person. A single act can be both a crime and a civil wrong. For example, the state can prosecute and punish the person for the crime, and the injured person can sue for damages in civil court.

State and Federal Crimes Criminal laws exist at both the state and federal levels. Some acts can be prosecuted only in state courts while other acts can be prosecuted only in federal courts. Certain crimes that violate both state and federal law can be prosecuted in either state or federal courts.

Classes of Crimes Crimes are separated into two categories based on their severity and the punishments attached to them. A felony is a crime that carries a potential prison sentence of more than one year. Felonies are usually more serious crimes. A misdemeanor is any crime that can result in a jail term of one year or less.

Parties to Crimes The person who commits a crime is called the principal. An accomplice is the person who helps the principal commit the crime. The accomplice can be charged with the same crime as the principal. A person who helps organize the crime but is not present when it occurs is called an accessory before the fact. This person can usually be charged with the same crime as the principal. An accessory after the fact is a person who learns about a crime after it has occurred and helps the principal or accomplice to avoid capture. This person is not charged with the original crime but may be charged with harboring a fugitive or obstructing justice.

Crimes of Omission Most crimes occur when a person does something that violates the law. In a few cases, however, failing to act may be a crime if the person had a legal duty to act. This is called a crime of omission.

Preliminary Crimes Certain actions take place before a crime is committed. These acts can be punished even if the crime is never completed. Three examples of preliminary crimes are solicitation, attempt, and conspiracy. Solicitation involves one person asking another to participate in a crime. To be convicted for attempt, the accused person must have both intended to commit a crime and have taken a "substantial step" toward committing the crime. A conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. Police cannot arrest people for merely discussing a crime—the people must have taken obvious steps towards completing the crime to be guilty of conspiracy.

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