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What Is Criminal Law?
Criminal law consists of the body of rules and statutes that defines conduct prohibited by the government, and that establishes punishment to be imposed for the commission of such acts. The term criminal law may sometimes include the related area of criminal procedure.
The category "criminal law" encompasses the body of rules and statutes that defines conduct prohibited by the government, and that establishes punishment to be imposed for the commission of such acts. It may also describe the entire criminal law system of a country like the United States, comprising the criminal courts, correctional institutions, and law enforcement and other legal professionals. Criminal law can be contrasted with civil law; the system for dealing with civil legal claims and the criminal law system share much of the same infrastructure -- courts, judges, attorneys, and so forth -- but are quite separate bodies of law, set up to deal with vastly different conduct.
Conduct is generally defined as criminal when it threatens and harms public safety and welfare.
Criminal Law versus Criminal Procedure
The term criminal law generally refers to substantive criminal laws. Substantive criminal laws define crimes and may establish punishments. In contrast to substantive laws setting out what is criminal, law that establishes criminal procedure describes the process through which the criminal laws are enforced. For example, the law prohibiting murder is a substantive criminal law. The manner in which government enforces this substantive law—through the gathering of evidence and prosecution—is generally considered a procedural matter.
Elements of a Crime
Criminal statutes identify crimes based on required acts (actus reus) and required states of mind (mens rea) or intent. The specific actus reas and mens rea make up the elements of a particular crime. To convict an individual of a crime, a prosecutor must prove each element of the specific crime. For example in most states arson is defined as the intentional burning of almost any kind of structure, construction, or even wilderness. Each element would have to be proven (i.e. “intentional”, “burning”, “structure/construction/land”) for an individual to be charged for arson.
Some crimes are defined by statute and do not require proving a mental state or mens rea to prove the crime. These are called statutory crimes.
Legal Defenses to a Crime
Individuals charged with a crime can supply a defense for an action to absolve them of criminal liability. Common defenses available in the American criminal law system include: self defense, defense of others, defense of property, use of lawful force, necessity, duress, insanity, intoxication, diminished capacity, mistake of fact, and mistake of law.
Phases of a Criminal Law Case
Criminal Law Resources on FindLaw
FindLaw Lawyer Directory: Criminal Defense Lawyers
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