A criminal offense is a violation of federal, state or municipal laws that carries a penalty. Generally, the penalty includes jail/prison time, a fine and probation. Local governments or the United States Congress determine what types of conducts and omissions are considered crimes.
Crimes can be divided into four primary categories – crimes against persons, crimes against property, inchoate crimes and statutory crimes. Crimes against persons usually have the most severe penalties and include acts such as murder.
Crimes against a person
Crimes against a person involve direct harm or the threat of force to another human being. These include violent crimes like assault and domestic violence, as well as hateful offenses such as rape and murder. They typically incur the heaviest penalties, up to and including the death penalty in this country for the most serious offenders.
For example, someone who attempts to administer lethally poisoned tea is guilty of a crime against a person (attempted murder), as is a kidnapper who holds an unwilling hostage for ransom. Someone who steals a credit card PIN or bank account number is also committing a crime against a person, as is a cyber-stalker who follows a victim online to stalk them.
A traditional view of criminal law held that the purpose of punishment was to redress moral wrongs and expiate guilt. Today, more rationalistic and pragmatic views predominate.
Crimes against property
In a broader sense, crimes against property include theft, burglary, arson, and other offenses that involve the misappropriation of real or virtual items. Such offenses are often committed for material gain, although some may also be motivated by anger or vengeance.
It is important to realize that determinations about what constitutes property and who qualifies as its owner are largely political questions, rather than natural truths. Criminal law simply enforces whatever answers to these questions have been reached in other fields of legal activity or policy making.
For example, stealing is a crime against property when the defendant takes another person’s possession with intent to permanently deprive that individual of its use. However, some crimes involving unauthorized access (such as hacking) are not considered property crimes because they do not involve the physical transfer of possession.
A crime that is considered a misdemeanor involves nonviolent actions and typically does not result in substantial jail time. Some examples include vandalism, certain types of drug possession and disorderly conduct. Criminal attorneys can help clients facing misdemeanor charges raise a variety of defenses to ensure their rights are protected throughout the process.
While misdemeanor convictions typically do not result in the restriction of civil rights, they may impact privileges such as professional licenses or the ability to hold public offices. This is called collateral consequence.
Despite being relatively minor, misdemeanors are moneymakers for jurisdictions and generate all sorts of debt — fines, probation fees and bail – for individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Many low-income people struggle to pay the debt they accumulate.
A felony is a serious criminal offense that can result in imprisonment for more than a year. It may also include fines, probation, or community service. Felonies can be committed in several ways, including assault, robbery, burglary, and murder.
Some states use class or level systems to rank felonies and set minimum and maximum sentences. Others skip classification altogether and simply assign penalties on a crime-by-crime basis.
Felony cases start when a prosecutor files a complaint against the defendant with a Magistrate. The complaint is a statement, usually under oath, of probable cause that the defendant committed the crime in question. The case is then presented to a jury or to the judge. The verdict will determine the penalty. Some crimes may be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the victim’s status.
An infraction is any act that violates a local, state or federal law. These are generally small crimes that only require a person to pay a fine. However, it is possible for an infraction to rise to the level of a misdemeanor or even felony crime under certain circumstances. For example, running a stop sign could become a more serious crime if it causes property damage or injury. It is important to hire a criminal defense attorney if you are accused of an infraction.
Infractions are not usually punished with jail time, but they can lead to hefty fines and other expenses. For example, traffic infractions may result in an increase in automobile insurance rates. Infractions can be handled in courts designed for traffic and minor offenses.