Criminal Law: Crime Definition FAQs


Q: What is arson?

  • A: Under federal law, arson is damaging or destroying by fire or explosive any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property that's owned or leased by the federal government.

    State arson laws may differ greatly. In some states, it may be arson if:

    • The building or structure burned is a house or some other dwelling, like a mobile home
    • Someone was actually in the building at the time of the fire
    • The building or structure burned could have had someone inside at the time the fire was set
    • Forest or park land was destroyed, such as by a wild fire


Q: What is burglary?

  • A: Each state defines the crime of burglary differently, but generally this crime involves the unlawful entry into a structure or building for the purpose of committing a crime in it, such as theft or arson. In some states, burglary applies only to houses or dwellings, while in other states it applies to any building or structure, including office buildings, tool sheds, and cars.

    Burglary may go by another name in your state, like "housebreaking" or "breaking and entering."

     


Q: Can an event be both a criminal and civil offense?

  • A: Yes. Depending on the circumstances, a single event may be tried in both courts. For example, a defendant may be tried in criminal court for murder, and later that same defendant may be sued in civil court by the victim's family for wrongful death. This is not considered double jeopardy - the constitutional protection against being tried for the same crime twice.


Q: Can being present at the scene of a crime make you guilty?

  • A: In most states, juries are instructed that merely being present at the scene of a crime, even with guilty knowledge that a crime is being committed, isn't enough to convict a person of a crime.

    But there are principles of criminal liability that apply to people other than the person who actually committed a crime. For example, under federal law there is a crime called "misprision" of a felony, which applies to a person who has actual knowledge of the commission of a felony and doesn't report it to the authorities.

    Also, under federal and most state laws, a person can be held criminally liable as an "accessory after the fact" if she has knowledge that a crime was committed and assists the offender to hinder his apprehension, trial or punishment. You can also be guilty of aiding and abetting a crime if you help another person in committing the crime, with knowledge of the criminal nature of the act they're committing.

    Additionally, a person who agrees with another person to commit a crime, after which the other person commits a criminal act to further their agreement, may be guilty of conspiracy.

    But merely witnessing a crime, without any participation in it and without providing assistance, isn't a crime.


Q: Do I need an attorney to go to court with me in a hit and run case?


  • A: Leaving the scene of an accident ("hit and run") is a serious offense. In many states, it carries enough points to result in a revocation of your driving privileges. It also carries a possible fine and jail sentence.

    Even if you settle the issue of damages with the other person involved, you'll still have to answer to the criminal charges. The fact that you accepted financial responsibility will be a factor the judge will consider when it comes to your punishment or sentence, but it won't affect the issue of guilt to the criminal charge.

    You should seek legal advice right away. A criminal defense attorney in your town can tell you what action is best to take, and whether you should have an attorney accompany you to court to speak for you and try to get you good result.


Q: I was the victim of a hit and run. I located the offending vehicle and owner. What should I do to pursue this?

  • A: If you're the victim of a hit and run accident, you should immediately report the accident to the police, and advise them that the driver left the scene without providing you with identification and insurance information. Ask the police to fill out a report. The report will likely be assigned a case number either immediately or within a few days.

    You should also call the claims department of your insurance company as soon as possible. The company will start a claim file, and explain to you the procedures for getting your car repaired. In the case of a hit and run, or uninsured motorist, the insurance company should pay for your vehicle repairs.

    If you later discover the identity of the hit and run driver, you should provide the information both to the police department (making sure to give them the number of your police report) and to your insurance company. The police department will investigate the matter and relay their findings to the local prosecutor, who'll decide whether to file criminal charges. Your insurance company will likely seek financial reimbursement from the hit and run driver for the money it paid to you.


Q: What constitutes "aiding and abetting?"

  • A: Aiding and abetting is a theory of criminal liability under federal and most state laws. You can be guilty of a crime either as a principal perpetrator - the "main" actor - or as an aider and abettor.

    Aiding and abetting applies to someone who assists or helps one or more other people commit a crime. To be held accountable as an aider and abettor, you must know of the criminal objective and do something to make it succeed. For example, if you drive your friend to a meeting where you know your friend is going to buy drugs, you may be an aider and abettor in the drug transaction.

    The key here is knowledge. While the level of participation of the aider and abettor may be relatively minor, the prosecution must show more than presence in a vehicle carrying drugs or association with conspirators known to be involved in a crime.

    In other words, mere presence at the scene of a crime, even with guilty knowledge that a crime is being committed, isn't enough to make you liable for the crime itself, unless and until you do something to help the crime succeed.

    Under federal law, the punishment for someone who aids and abets a crime is the same as the punishment for the person who principally committed the crime. In some states, the punishment may be less.


Q: What exactly does the term "eluding a police officer" mean?

  • A: Fleeing or eluding police occurs when a police officer gives you a visual or audible signal to stop, whether by hand, voice, emergency light or siren, and you don't obey.

    In most states, it's unlawful for a driver of a vehicle to disobey a police officer's signal to stop if the officer is in uniform and his badge or similar sign of his authority is prominently displayed, or the officer is in a marked police vehicle, regardless of whether he's in uniform.

    It's also unlawful for a person who's neither driving or in an vehicle to disobey an officer's order to stop, such as by running away on foot or some other means.


Q: What exactly is the felony murder law?

  • A: Felony murder means that all persons engaged in a felony are liable for murder if one of them kills a person during the crime.

    The precise definition of felony murder varies depending on whether federal or state law applies to the case. Generally, someone is liable for murder if, during the course of committing a serious felony, someone else is killed. A "serious felony" is one like arson, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or rape.

    For example, if A and B rob a bank and as they're escaping B shoots and kills a bank employee, even by accident, both A and B may be charged with murder unfer the felony murder rule.

    Most states also apply the felony murder rule to situations where the death occurs during the immediate flight from the crime. It can also be applied if the perpetrators didn't complete the underlying crime and only attempted to commit the crime, if someone dies during the attempt.

    In some states, it's a defense to felony murder if the defendant was unarmed and had no reason to believe that any of his co-conspirators was either armed or intended to engage in any conduct dangerous to life.


Q: What is considered "stalking" by law? Also, what are the possible sentences or punishments should a stalker be found guilty?

  • A: "Stalking" is a crime of harassment. The exact definition of stalking, and the acts that may be held to be stalking, are likely to vary depending on whether federal or state law applies to the case. Generally, a person commits the offense of stalking if he makes a credible threat to another person and, in connection with the threat, repeatedly follows that person or repeatedly makes any form of communication with that person or a member of that person's immediate family, whether or not a conversation occurs.

    A "credible threat" is considered to be one that would cause a reasonable person to be in fear for the person's life or safety of his or her immediate family. If the stalking occurs through repeated communications, it isn't necessary that the communications be made at the same time as the threat to be considered "in connection" with the threat. They might occur before, during or after the threat is made, so long as the communication is related to, a part or in furtherance of the credible threat.

    Stalking can also occur when a person repeatedly makes obscene comments or gestures to another person with the intent to harass them, either personally or by telephone- and includes acts done in public as well as those directed to someone in the privacy of his or her home.

    Stalking statutes have been challenged on the grounds that they're unconstitutionally vague and infringe on protected areas of free speech. However, at least 48 states have enacted some variation of a stalking statute. While the statutory language isn't identical in every case, the majority of these courts have upheld stalking statutes against such attacks.

    The definition of stalking, as well as the penalty, differs from state to state. If you or someone close to you is concerned about being charged with such an offense, you should contact a criminal defense attorney in your area who can advise you of the precise conduct the law prohibits in your state, and the penalties.


Q: What is the definition of "criminal trespass?"

  • A: While the precise definition can vary from state to state, a person commits the crime of "criminal trespass" when she enters or remains on another's property without the owner's consent. In some states, such as Tennessee, it's assumed that a trespasser knew he didn't have the owner's consent if the owner or someone with the authority to act on behalf of the owner personally communicates this fact to him, or if there's a fence around the property, or if there's a sign or other posting on the property that's likely to be seen by intruders.

    There are also federal laws making it illegal to trespass on federal land.

    You may have a defense against criminal trespass if the property was open to the public, or your conduct didn't substantially interfere with the owner's use of the property, or you immediately left the premises when requested.


Q: What is the difference between criminal and civil law?

  • A: Civil law is concerned with relationships between individuals and is addressed in civil court. Here, the person injured or somehow "wronged" (he's called the "plaintiff") by another person files a lawsuit against that person (he's the "defendant"). Generally, if the plaintiff wins, the defendant has to pay for the plaintiff's damages.

    Criminal law, on the other hand, deals with relationships between individuals and the federal, state, or local government. If someone breaks a criminal law (he's called the "defendant"), the government or "prosecutor" files a criminal complaint against the defendant. If the defendant loses (meaning he's "convicted"), he may have to pay a fine or perhaps go to jail.


Q: What is the difference between theft and robbery?

  • A: The laws of your state will outline the difference, and the definitions usually vary from state to state. However, theft is typically defined as the taking of property or some other thing of value (like services) without permission of the owner and with the intention of keeping or using the thing taken for yourself. Shoplifting or stealing cable TV services is theft. In some states, theft is known as "larceny."

    Robbery, on the other hand, usually involves taking something from someone else by use of force or the threat of force. Stealing a victim's purse at gun-point is a good example of robbery. 



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