What Is Criminal Law?

Criminal law deals exclusively with the crimes and punishments of people. A crime is any act or behavior that society has decided should be punished by imprisonment, fine or both. The rules for criminal law vary depending on whether the charge is a felony or misdemeanor, and whether the case is held in state or federal court.

Felonies and Misdemeanors

Most crimes are divided into two main categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Generally:

Felonies - crimes that are punished by more than one year in prison and usually are the more serious of the two.
Misdemeanors - crimes where the person faces less than one year in prison and are usually less serious crimes.

Federal vs. State Prosecution

The rules change depending on whether the crime is charged in State or Federal Court. Most criminal matters are dealt with in state courts unless:

The crime occurred on federal property
Federal employee committed the crime
The criminal activity affects interstate commerce, such as drug trafficking

Criminal Law Proceedings

Although the rules often vary, most criminal proceedings include the following steps:

Stop or Investigation

for the police to stop or investigate you they must have a reasonable belief that you violated the law


if a police officer believes that evidence is needed to further the investigation they must get a search warrant
to get a search warrant the officer must provide the issuing judge with probable cause, which usually means that there is enough facts to support the assumption that there is sufficient evidence present at the scene where they are going to search
a police officer does not need a warrant if there are exigent circumstances, which means there is an extreme need for personal or public safety to search the premises


a person can be questioned as long as their constitutional rights are protected Arrest
the police must have probable cause to arrest an individual, unless the crime was committed in the officer's presence
the person must be afforded the constitutional right to obtain an attorney and to remain silent until speaking with that attorney


the police have a very short time after arrest in which to charge or release you
if the police decide to charge you, a complaint or indictment will be filed, and at an arraignment you will hear the charges against you.
at this point you have the option to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest
in some cases a preliminary hearing may also be held
there may also be settlement conferences set to try to reach a plea bargain


the constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury
the jury will make a finding of guilty, not guilty or acquittal Sentencing Hearing
The Court will determined the length and type of punishment you will receive

Criminal Law

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