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A Beginner's Guide To Understanding Criminal Law

Real Deal Attorneys
A Beginner's Guide To Understanding Criminal Law

You may think you’re familiar with the world of criminal law from the countless true crime dramas, Law & Order reruns, and detective programs you’ve watched (and yes, we’re all sad that Better Call Saul has ended). But criminal law is a complicated field that is quite unlike any other area of law, and even its most basic principles are often misrepresented in popular culture. So, what makes criminal law so different?

Criminal vs. Civil Law

An important starting point is the difference between criminal and civil law. Many fields of law–including tort law (which governs, for example ,personal injury cases), property law, and contract law–all form part of what is known as civil law.

Civil law cases involve one private person (be it an individual or a company) suing another to settle a dispute between them. This dispute may concern unpaid debts, unperformed contracts, damage to property, or a host of other issues.

Civil cases deal with what is referred to as ‘private wrongs,’ and they are usually resolved by the court requiring one person to repay another, or to pay for damage to their property, etc.

Criminal law, on the other hand, concerns ‘public wrongs’: wrongs which have a broader social impact, arising from actions which can be said to be a wrong against the whole community because such action breaches basic standards of behavior.

In criminal law, it is only ever the state which can file (institute) a case. One private individual cannot sue another in criminal law. In instituting a case, the state is said to be doing so on behalf of the community whose rules have been broken. This is why most criminal case citations begin with ‘People of the State of California v. ...’ or simply ‘California v...’. The object of instituting a criminal case is to ensure that the defendant is punished for their actions (usually through the imposition of jail time).

Types Of Criminal Cases

There are three types of criminal law cases: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Infractions are minor violations, such as traffic violations. Most infractions result in the defendant being required to pay a fine. Misdemeanors are more serious violations, which may result in up to one year in jail or the imposition of a fine. Misdemeanors include DUIs, vandalism, and petty theft.

Felonies are the most serious crimes, such as robbery, murder, and sexual assault, and the defendant can be sent to prison for 16 months or more.

Crimes are defined in written pieces of legislation called statutes. Criminal law statutes define the conduct which constitutes a crime. For example, the Californian Penal Code defines robbery as "taking another person’s property from their body or immediate possession with the use of force or fear” (PC 211).

The Fundamental Rule Of Criminal Law

In criminal cases, the defendant is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. This is a concept that you probably would have learned about through watching television. But what does this mean in practice? It means that the defendant (also called the accused) should be treated as an innocent, law-abiding citizen until their guilt has been proven. One important consequence of this is that the accused should not be imprisoned until their guilt has been proven in court. This is why defendants are allowed to remain free citizens on bail until their sentencing (if they are sentenced at all). In some cases, when the defendant poses a real and imminent danger to the community or is a flight risk, bail will be refused.

A second consequence of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ rule is that it is the state which must prove the defendant’s guilt. In legal terms, the state has the ‘burden of proof.’ It must build its case before the jury, and the defendant need only respond to it. The state must prove its case by proving each element of the crime ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ In civil cases, the plaintiff need only prove their case on a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ (that is, more than 50%). This is another difference between criminal and civil law: the standard of proof is higher in criminal cases.

Rights Of The Accused

Since criminal law cases can have a very serious impact on the life of the accused, accused persons are afforded certain special rights by the criminal justice system. These include the right to free legal representation (in the case of misdemeanors and felonies) at the state’s expense if they cannot afford their own lawyer. Other rights afforded to the accused are set out in Article1 Section 15 of California’s Constitution and include the right to a speedy public trial and the right to compel witnesses to testify on the accused’s behalf.

Look No Further For A Criminal Lawyer You Can Trust

If you or someone you love is a defendant in a criminal case, having good legal representation can make all the difference. Hiring an expert criminal defense lawyer who will help secure favorable bail conditions, investigate your case, review police records, manage paperwork, and use their knowledge of the law in your favor will ensure your case is as strong as possible.

Real Deal Attorneys has a network of experienced criminal lawyers which we are ready to refer to you through our lawyer referral service. Contact us today at(424) 367-1271to find out how we can help you get the legal representation you deserve!

Real Deal Attorneys
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