Criminal Law

Frequently Asked Criminal Law Questions: Crime Definitions

Look here for definitions of and distinctions between some common criminal offenses.


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: 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 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 under 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.

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