Criminal Law

Criminal Law in the United States

Contents:

Law that deals with formally forbidden conduct. Criminal law both declares what conduct is illegal and sets forth the penalties for violations. The purpose of criminal law is the prevention of harm to the community and the protection of public safety. Criminal law is the opposite of civil law, which essentially governs individual conduct with respect to private matters. A wide range of conduct has been prescribed. The most serious offenses are classified as felonies and may be punishable by prison sentences in excess of one year. Such offenses as murder, arson, assault, and armed robbery are examples of felonies. In many states, the individual who commits the felony of first-degree murder may receive capital punishment. Less serious offenses are called misdemeanors and generally carry lighter punishments such as jail time up to a year in length or monetary fines. Certain traffic violations, shoplifting, and disorderly conduct are among those infractions typically defined as misdemeanors. Our federal system empowers both the national and state levels to define criminal conduct. Most criminal law is enacted at the state level, although the body of federal criminal law has increased since the early 1980s as the federal government has become more active in such areas as drug enforcement. Substantive criminal law in effect either nationally or in a particular state is typically compiled into a single criminal code. (1)

Analysis and Relevance

Criminal law is enacted by legislative bodies. It is positive law in that it reflects the views of a legislative majority on socially unacceptable conduct. Not only do governments set the rules, but they also play an extensive role in rule enforcement. The government is responsible for both the apprehension and prosecution of offenders. This latter function reflects the view that criminal behavior injures the society at large, and that it is a public responsibility to seek punishment on behalf of the individual victim. It is for this reason that criminal cases are usually entitled “People” or a named state against the defendant. In order to insure that government does not act arbitrarily in its law enforcement function, a number of procedural safeguards are established by both constitutional and statutory provisions. (2)

Criminal Law Definition

That branch of jurisprudence which treats of crimes and offenses.

Practical Information

Note: Some of this information was last updated in 1982

The statutes and general dicta that forbid certain actions or conduct as detrimental to the welfare of the state and that provide punishment therefore. Criminal acts are prosecuted by the state, whereas civil wrongs (see civil law (in U.S. law)), are prosecuted by a private individual. A wrong may be both a criminal wrong and a civil wrong; for example, assault and battery (in U.S. law). A crime may be a treason, a felony, or a misdemeanor. The Constitution of the United States states that treason “shall consist only in levying war against them or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Felonies are crimes punishable by death or by imprisonment in a federal or state prison. They include murder, grand larceny (in U.S. law), arson (in U.S. law), and rape (in U.S. law). Misdemeanors are crimes of lesser importance than felonies and are punishable by a fine or imprisonment in the local jail. They include petty larceny, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and vagrancy. Violation of traffic ordinances, building cods, and similar city ordinances are not crimes but are termed “petty offenses,” “public torts,” or mala prohibita. See tort (in U.S. law); criminal court (in U.S. law); civil law (in U.S. law).

(Revised by Ann De Vries)

What is Criminal Law?

For a meaning of it, read Criminal Law in the Legal Dictionary here. Browse and search more U.S. and international free legal definitions and legal terms related to Criminal Law.

Criminal Law in the United States

Introduction to Criminal Law

The English colonists who came to North America in the 1600s brought their legal traditions with them. After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the English common law remained as the basis of law in the United States. Although U.S. law is rooted in the English common law tradition, it has evolved in distinctive ways to meet the needs and requirements of U.S. society. In the area of criminal law, the common law provided the basis for defining criminal behavior; however, written statutes have been adopted that either modify these definitions or provide new ones. Thus, almost all criminal prosecutions today are based on criminal laws defined by statute rather than by the common law.” (3)

Character of Criminal Law

The Role of Courts and Legislatures in the definiton of crimes

Main issues:

  • Case Law: Regina v. Dudley & Stephens and People v. Kellogg
  • Purposes of Criminal Punishment
  • Lon Fuller, The Case of the Speluncean Explorers

Proportionality and Vagueness

  • Case Law: Nash v. United States and Gray v. Kohl
  • The Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine.

Criminal Law in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

For starting research in the law of a foreign country:

Link Description
Criminal Law Criminal Law in the World Legal Encyclopedia.
Criminal Law Criminal Law in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Criminal Law Criminal Law in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Criminal Law Criminal Law in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Criminal Law Criminal Law in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

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Concept of Criminal Law

In the U.S., in the context of Judiciary power and branch, Criminal Law has the following meaning: The law of crimes and their punishments defines criminal offenses, regulates the apprehension, charging, and trial of suspected offenders, and fixes punishment for convicted persons. Substantive criminal law defines particular crimes, and procedural law establishes rules for the prosecution of crime. (Source of this definition of Criminal Law : University of Texas)

Criminal Law

Criminal Law and Procedure: Main Elements

The coverage of Criminal Law and Procedure includes the following main elements:

The Right to Counsel and to Confront Hostile Witnesses

Find out an overview of this topic, in relation to Criminal Law and Procedure, in the legal Ecyclopedia.

The Right to a Speedy and Public Trial

There is information on this basic subject in the legal Ecyclopedia.

The Right to Trial by Jury

Find out an overview of this issue following this link (topic).

Defenses

There is information on this basic subject matter in this legal reference.

Bail

Find out an overview of this topic in the legal Ecyclopedia.

Habeas Corpus

There is information on this basic subject in this reference work.

Crime and Punishment

There is information on this basic subject matter in this legal reference.

References

See Also

  • Criminal Law
  • Criminal Procedure

Tort and Criminal Law Compared Explained

References

See Also

  • Tort
  • Product Liability

Finding the law: Criminal Law in the U.S. Code

A collection of general and permanent laws relating to criminal law, passed by the United States Congress, are organized by subject matter arrangements in the United States Code (U.S.C.; this label examines criminal law topics), to make them easy to use (usually, organized by legal areas into Titles, Chapters and Sections). The platform provides introductory material to the U.S. Code, and cross references to case law. View the U.S. Code’s table of contents here.

Resources

See Also

  • Judiciary Power
  • Judiciary Branch

Criminal Law and Procedure: Main Elements

The coverage of Criminal Law and Procedure includes the following main elements:

The Right to Counsel and to Confront Hostile Witnesses

Find out an overview of this topic, in relation to Criminal Law and Procedure, in the legal Ecyclopedia.

The Right to a Speedy and Public Trial

There is information on this basic subject in the legal Ecyclopedia.

The Right to Trial by Jury

Find out an overview of this issue following this link (topic).

Defenses

There is information on this basic subject matter in this legal reference.

Bail

Find out an overview of this topic in the legal Ecyclopedia.

Habeas Corpus

There is information on this basic subject in this reference work.

Crime and Punishment

There is information on this basic subject matter in this legal reference.

References

See Also

  • Criminal Law
  • Criminal Procedure

Tort and Criminal Law Compared Explained

References

See Also

  • Tort
  • Product Liability

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Criminal Law from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
  2. Id.
  3. Information about Criminal Law in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  • See Also

    Civil Law (Judicial Function) Code (Judicial Function) Legal Positivism (Judicial Function).

    Guide to Criminal Law

    In this Section

    In this Section, contents include, among others: Criminal Law, Criminal Law Common Law Origins, Statutory Crimes, Criminal Law Lawmaking Authority

    Criminal Law in the International Business Landscape

    Definition of Criminal Law in the context of U.S. international business and public trade policy: The law on wrongs against society, such as tax evasion, false advertising, or reckless polluting.

Criminal Law: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Criminal Law. This part provides references, in relation to Criminal Law, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Criminal Law by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Criminal Law and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Criminal Law or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Criminal Law and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Criminal Law. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Criminal Law should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Criminal Law when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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