To ensure public order and safety, lawmakers classify certain acts as criminal offenses. Each state has adopted laws that make certain acts illegal, although the punishment may vary from one state to another. Federal criminal laws and sentences apply no matter where you are in the United States.
Criminal vs. Civil Cases
Court cases are divided into two broad categories: civil and criminal. Businesses and private citizens file civil lawsuits, usually for the purpose of getting the other side to pay money or stop doing something. If you lose a civil lawsuit, your credit rating may suffer - but you won't go to jail.
If you are accused of a criminal offense, the government files the lawsuit. If you are found guilty, you may be required to pay a fine or go to jail. A criminal conviction can affect your ability to get a driver's license, find a place to live, or get a job.
State Criminal Offenses
The county or district attorney files state criminal cases. Crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the state include acts of burglary, murder and theft that take place within the state. Some acts may be crimes in one state but not in others. Texas, for example, lists more than 1,000 acts as criminal offenses - including reproducing or tampering with a livestock mark. If you are found guilty of a state crime, you may be fined, placed on probation or ordered to spend time in a state prison.
Federal Criminal Offenses
Federal criminal laws apply throughout the United States. Federal crimes include kidnapping across state lines, civil rights violations, selling illegal drugs across states lines and mail fraud. Committing a crime on federal property or against a federal employee is also a federal crime. A federal prosecutor files the charges in federal court and, if you are found guilty, you may be sent to a federal prison.
Types of Criminal Offenses
Many states group criminal offenses into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is a lesser offense, such as theft, and the punishment is typically less than one year in a local jail. Felonies are more serious crimes that include rape, murder and kidnapping, and offenders are usually sentenced to more than one year in prison. Some states refer to criminal offenses in terms of degrees.
A fourth-degree offense such as mischief is less serious than a first-degree crime such as murder. The least serious criminal offenses are called infractions. Vandalism and traffic violations are examples of infractions.
A Criminal Law Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding criminal offenses is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.