A crime is action or inaction in violation of a criminal law. Criminal laws vary from state to state and from state to federal.
The study of criminal law defines crimes and defenses to crimes. The study of criminal procedure focuses on the enforcement of rights by individuals while submitting to government investigation, arrest, interrogation, trial, and appeal.
A civil lawsuit or civil litigation matter resolves a dispute between individuals, called a plaintiff (the injured party) and defendant (the alleged wrongdoer). Every civil litigation matter includes a victim (the plaintiff), which has suffered harm. The goal of the civil litigation matter is to compensate the plaintiff for injury. The court can compensate the plaintiff by awarding money, which is called damages. Both parties in a civil litigation matter must represent themselves or hire private attorneys.
A criminal prosecution takes place when the government, represented by a prosecutor, takes legal action against the defendant (the alleged wrongdoer) for committing a crime. Some criminal prosecutions do not include a victim, or harm, because the goal of the criminal prosecution is punishment, not compensation. Every criminal prosecution involves the government, so the US and state constitutions provide the criminal defendant with extra protections not present in a civil lawsuit, such as free counsel when the defendant is indigent and facing incarceration.
Crimes can be classified according to the severity of punishment. The most serious crimes with the entire range of sentencing options available are felonies. Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies and have less severe sentencing options. Felony-misdemeanors can be prosecuted and punished as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. Infractions, also called violations, are the least serious crimes and generally do not involve incarceration. The purposes of punishing a criminal defendant are both specific and general deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution.
Law comes from three sources: the Constitution, a statute, or a case. The Constitution is the highest source of law but is only applicable when there is government action. Statutory law applies to individuals but is inferior to constitutional law. Case law is law made by judges when they rule on the facts of a case. Although case law is technically inferior to statutory law, judges must interpret statutes and the Constitution, so case law can be the most powerful source of law. When a case invalidates a statute as unconstitutional, this action is called judicial review. Case law stays consistent because judges follow previous court decisions, called precedent. This policy, called stare decisis, lends predictability to case law but is not absolute, and courts can deviate from it to update the law.
You Be the Lawyer
Read the prompt, review the case, and then decide whether you would accept or reject the case if you were the lawyer. Check your answers using the answer key at the end of the chapter.
- You are an expert in criminal law, not civil litigation. Would you accept or reject this case? Read Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004). The case is available at this link: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14748284771413043760&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr.
- You are an expert in criminal law, not criminal procedure. Would you accept or reject this case? Read People v. Wrotten, 2010 N.Y. Slip Op 04501 (2010). The case is available at this link: http://law.justia.com/cases/new-york/appellate-division-first-department/2010/2010-04501.html
- You are an expert in constitutional law. Would you accept or reject this case? Read Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603 (1999). The case is available at this link: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/98-83.ZS.html.
- Reread question 3. Change your expertise to constitutional law as it applies to criminal prosecutions. Would you accept or reject the Wilson case?
Cases of Interest
- Padilla v. Gonzales, 397 F.3d 1016 (2005), discusses malum in se and malum prohibitum crimes: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=5187582705718052419&q= malum+in+se+ malum+in+prohibitum&hl=en&as_sdt=2,5&as_ylo=2004&as_vis=1.
- Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001), discusses a state’s ability to create a common-law crime: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-6218.ZS.html.
- Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), is the case in which the US Supreme Court invalidates a state statute criminalizing abortion: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0410_0113_ZO.html.
Articles of Interest
- Model Penal Code: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Model+Penal+Code
- Stare decisis: http://civilliberty.about.com/od/historyprofiles/g/stare_decisis.htm
Websites of Interest
- Federal criminal statutes: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18
- State criminal statutes: http://www.legallawhelp.com/state_law/
- Government agencies in alphabetical order: https://www.usa.gov/federal-agencies/a
- Complete federal Constitution: http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution
- State constitutions: http://www.thegreenpapers.com/slg/links.phtml
Statistics of Interest
- State prosecutors in the United States: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbse&sid=9
- Felony convictions in the US state courts: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2152
- Estimated crime statistics in the United States: http://www.ucrdatatool.gov/Search/Crime/State/RunCrimeStatebyState.cfm
Answer to Exercise
- The US Supreme Court held that the attorney general cannot criminalize the use of drugs under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act by enforcing the Controlled Substances Act. The Controlled Substances Act is targeted at preventing recreational drug use, and, therefore, the Court upheld Oregon’s ability to legalize assisted suicide.
Answers to Exercises
- This is an issue of criminal law. Although Paul is a law enforcement officer, when he shoots Barney while he is facedown in handcuffs, he may be committing a crime. The question in this case is not whether the arrest was executed properly, but whether a crime was committed after the arrest.
- Payton reviews a New York statute allowing law enforcement to arrest a defendant in the home without a warrant. This case focuses on law enforcement arrest, so it examines an issue of criminal procedure.
Answers to Exercises
- This is a civil litigation matter. Although the incident involves Jerry, who is a law enforcement officer, and it takes place while Jerry is writing a traffic ticket, Jerry is suing Juanita for damages. Thus this is civil litigation, not criminal prosecution. If Juanita is prosecuted for the crime of filing a false police report, then this would be a criminal prosecution.
- The Johnson case reviews an award of damages and is thus a civil litigation matter. Criminal conversation is the tort of adultery in North Carolina.
Answers to Exercises
- This crime is probably a misdemeanor because Harrison was sentenced to one year in jail, rather than prison. Although the result, Calista’s death, is very serious, the method of killing may have been accidental. Criminal homicide is discussed in Chapter 9 “Criminal Homicide”.
- The Iowa Court of Appeals based its ruling on New Jersey law. Although New Jersey named the offenses “high misdemeanors,” New Jersey case law indicates that any offense with a sentence of one year or more incarceration is a common-law felony. This triggered a sentencing enhancement increasing the defendant’s sentence to an indeterminate sentence of incarceration not to exceed fifteen years.
Answers to Exercises
- The court awards criminal restitution to the victim after a state or federal prosecutor is successful in a criminal trial. Thus the victim receives the restitution award without paying for a private attorney. A plaintiff that receives damages has to pay a private attorney to win the civil litigation matter.
- In Campbell, the defendant entered a plea agreement specifying that he had committed theft in an amount under $100,000. The trial court determined that the defendant had actually stolen $100,000 and awarded restitution of $100,000 to various victims. The defendant claimed that this amount was excessive because it exceeded the parameters of the theft statute he was convicted of violating. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed and held that the discretion of how much restitution to award belongs to the judge. As long as the judge properly ascertained this amount based on the facts, restitution could exceed the amount specified in the criminal statute the defendant was convicted of violating.
Answers to Exercises
- Hal can be prosecuted for ingesting his new drug only if he is in a state that allows for common-law crimes. The drug is new, so the state legislature will probably not have criminalized it by enacting a statute.
- The US Supreme Court held that inmates do not have the First Amendment right to give other inmates legal advice. The Court based its ruling on the prison’s interest in ensuring prison order, security, and inmate rehabilitation. The Court stated, “We nonetheless have maintained that the constitutional rights that prisoners possess are more limited in scope than the constitutional rights held by individuals in society at large” (Shaw v. Murphy, 2010).
- Justice Scalia criticized the US Supreme Court majority for not adhering to stare decisis. According to Justice Scalia, the Court did not follow a recent (seventeen-year-old) precedent set in Bowers v. Hardwick.
Answers to Law and Ethics Questions
- The reason criminal defendants get special protections not extended to civil litigation defendants is the harshness of the punishment and the inequality of the criminal prosecution itself. Criminal defendants may lose their life or their liberty. Civil litigation defendants risk only a loss of money. In addition, criminal defendants face the intimidating prospect of fighting the government and all its vast resources. Civil litigation defendants are squaring off against another individual. As a society, we believe that there is nothing as unjust as punishing an innocent person. Thus we give criminal defendants special protections to level the playing field.
- The criminal trial took place first because O. J. Simpson was a criminal defendant and therefore had the benefit of the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Constitutional protections are discussed in Chapter 3 “Constitutional Protections”.
Answers to You Be the Lawyer
- In this case, the plaintiffs are seeking an injunction. The plaintiffs are not the government; they are a group of fish. They are not suing for the goal of punishment, but rather to compel the president of the United States and the secretary of defense to review the use of certain naval equipment. Thus this is a civil litigation matter and you should reject the case.
- The Court is reviewing the Sixth Amendment right to confront accusers. In this case, a witness who was too ill to travel was permitted to testify via live, two-way video instead of testifying in the courtroom in front of the defendant. The New York Supreme Court held that under the circumstances, this testimony complied with the Sixth Amendment. This case focuses on the defendant’s constitutional rights during his criminal trial, so this is a criminal procedure issue and you should reject the case.
- The US Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment when law enforcement brings media along while executing a search. Thus this is a federal constitutional issue and you should accept the case.
- In Wilson, the Court decided that the plaintiff was not entitled to damages when suing law enforcement under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Thus although this case involves the Fourth Amendment, it is essentially a civil litigation matter, and you should reject the case.
Shaw v. Murphy, 532 U.S. 223, 229 (2001), accessed October 4, 2010, http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=9536800826824133166&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr.