There are two main categories of laws in the United States. These are criminal laws and civil laws. Civil laws are intended to punish wrongdoing and compensate individuals injured by the behavior of others, usually through a lawsuit. Civil law covers a wide array of issues, including personal injury resulting from a car accident and divorce laws. Remedies for civil law issues generally include monetary compensation but may also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions.
Criminal laws are intended to deal with behavior that is considered an offense against society, the state, and/or the general public, even if the victim is an individual person. If an individual is convicted of a crime, they may be forced to pay fines and/or be sentenced to jail and/or prison time. It does not matter whether an individual is charged with a minor crime or a serious crime, they have the right to a trial and other legal protections. Below is a short guide to how the criminal law system functions.
What Does Criminal Law Cover?
Criminal law is the body of law that deals with crimes, including actions from theft to murder. As noted above, criminal laws are intended to punish wrongdoing that is considered an offense against society.
Criminal law serves many functions, including to:
- Maintain order;
- Resolve disputes by providing a legal framework as a guide;
- Protect individuals and their property;
- Enable the government to collect taxes; and
- Protect some individual rights.
The main difference between civil law and criminal law is that in a civil lawsuit, an ordinary citizen or business is the plaintiff. In criminal law, the state brings the charges against an individual.
The remedies and penalties are also different in civil and criminal law. Civil remedies usually include a monetary amount awarded, where one party is required to pay the other. Criminal punishments, as noted above, may include incarceration, probation, and/or fines.
In some cases, such as in the crime of assault, it is possible for an individual to face both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit for the same offense. Criminal assault creates a reasonable apprehension of bodily harm in another individual. A defendant, or the individual charged with the crime, may face criminal penalties if convicted.
An individual may also face a civil lawsuit for assault in some jurisdictions. If a defendant is found not guilty in a criminal assault proceeding, the victim may still seek damages by way of a civil lawsuit.
What is Criminal Law Procedure? How Does it Work?
There are two institutions that can bring a criminal case against a defendant: the federal government and the state government. This is the reason cases are stylized, or labeled, as United States v. John Doe or State of Massachusetts v. John Doe.
Whether a defendant is charged in state or federal court depends on the crime they allegedly committed and where the alleged offense occurred. Each state has their own criminal laws. There are, however, Constitutional protections that apply to every defendant in every case, no matter the jurisdiction. These rights include:
- The right to a speedy trial;
- The right to a jury;
- Miranda rights; and
- The protection against self-incrimination.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a speedy trial. This prevents a defendant from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without adjudication, or action taken on their case.
The Sixth Amendment also guarantees a defendant the right to a trial by jury. In most jurisdictions, a defendant has the right to waive their right to a jury trial and choose to have a bench trial instead. In a bench trial, the defendant’s guilt or innocence is decided by a judge. This right only applies to criminal trials.
A defendant also has the right to be read their Miranda rights, also called being mirandized. Miranda rights inform the defendant of their Constitutional rights. These include the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and the right to have an attorney appointed if they cannot afford one.
The protection against self-incrimination is also known as pleading the fifth. This protection is found in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. This protection provides that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against their own interest.
What Happens in a Typical Criminal Trial?
Every jurisdiction has their own procedural rules so the procedures and timelines of a criminal trial may vary greatly. Trials are generally conducted in two phases, the guilt phase and the sentencing phase.
During the guilt phase of a trial, the prosecutor and the defense present their cases to prove the defendant’s guilt or innocence. The prosecutor must present evidence that the defendant’s behavior met all the elements of the crime charged. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor must:
- Show beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest burden of proof in American law;
- That the defendant committed the actus reus, or criminal activity; and
- The defendant committed the crime with the proper mens rea, or mental state or intent required by the charge.
If the judge or jury finds that all these elements have been satisfied as required, they may then find the defendant guilty of the crime of which they were charged.
The second phase is called the sentencing phase. As the name suggests, during this phase, the jury or judge will review the punishment range for the crime and/or crimes of which the defendant was convicted. Punishment ranges are provided by state and federal laws.
The judge and/or jury will consider many different factors, including:
- The defendant’s previous criminal history;
- Aggravating factors;
- Mitigating factors; and
- Various other relevant facts in order to determine the person’s punishment.
Once both phases of a trial are completed, the convicted defendant will officially receive their punishment. This may include prison time, fines, or both.
What are Examples of Crimes Someone Can be Convicted of in Boston?
The following crimes are the cost common criminal offenses that are committed in the United States as noted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and criminal records:
- Larceny and/or theft;
- Motor vehicle theft;
- Aggravated assault; and
A criminal record is a documentation of an individual’s criminal history. It is updated by various local, state, and/or federal law enforcement agencies. This information is shared with other law enforcement agencies and is often publicly available as well. Criminal records may be used for many purposes, including:
- An identification check;
- An employment background check;
- A security clearance;
- Adoption proceedings;
- International travel and/or visa purposes;
- Compiling a suspect list; and
- Enhanced sentencing for criminal prosecutions.
Most criminal acts are classified from less serious and/or petty offenses, such as simple theft, to more serious offenses, such as drug trafficking and/or murder. Every jurisdiction, including federal courts, classify these crimes differently, from misdemeanor crimes to felony crimes.
Which crime an individual is charged with depends on the location where the crime was committed. In some cases, there may be confusion as to whether the offense will be charged under state law or under federal law.
Are There Any Unique Criminal Laws in Boston, Massachusetts?
Every state has its own unique set of criminal laws. Actions that are legal in one state may not be in another. Massachusetts is a state that has some peculiar criminal laws.
Some peculiar criminal laws in Massachusetts that are not considered crimes in other states include:
- Selling stink bombs;
- Selling arrowheads for hunting purposes;
- Organizing and/or participating in a hazing ritual; and/or
- Failing to report knowledge of a hazing ritual.
Massachusetts also outlaws more violent crimes, including dueling and prize fighting. Massachusetts law also distinguishes between assault and battery conducted for the purpose of collecting a loan from general assault and battery. These are each considered separate crimes and carry unique penalties.
These differences demonstrate the importance of being aware of what is considered a crime in the state in which an individual resides. This may be especially important for individuals who recently moved from another state. For example, if a dealer of arrowheads recently moved to Massachusetts from a state where selling arrowheads was legal, they may unknowingly commit a crime.
Should I Hire a Boston Criminal Law Attorney?
Yes, it is important to have the assistance of a criminal lawyer for any criminal law issues you are facing. If you are charged with a crime in Boston and/or Massachusetts, it is important to seek a criminal lawyer who is familiar with the local criminal laws. A local lawyer will be familiar with the area and court systems, be able to review your case, and can represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary.