Criminal law covers "public wrongs", or offenses against the public and order. The federal, state, and local governments all define these laws and prosecute people who commit these crimes. Public wrongs range from traffic violations to the most serious offenses such as rape or murder. Those charged with a crime all called "defendants". They are represented by defense attorneys, while the government that charges the defendant is represented by an attorney called a "prosecutor". If you are charged with a crime, you will need representation by an attorney with experience in criminal defense in order to protect your legal rights.
The Constitution of the United States requires the government to follow the due process of law before depriving a person of their life, liberty, or property. Criminal statutes must therefore clearly define all crimes and criminal conduct, and cannot be vague or prevent understanding of conduct prohibited by law. Criminal statutes must define a guilty state of mind (called mens rea) as well as an illegal action (called actus reus). For example, it is not a crime to bump someone on a crowded train, because there was no criminal intent. It is also not a crime to think about harming someone without acting. This requirement also applies to attempted crimes. Conviction requires the defendant to take action to attempt a crime. An experience criminal defense attorney can explain these terms and concepts, and help you to understand the specifics of your situation.
The Criminal Defense Process
In order to assure that criminal trials are fair, both prosecutors and defense attorneys are held to a complicated set of rules and regulations. The complexity of these cases require that a defense attorney should have expertise and experience in criminal law. A defense attorney should be involved in a case as soon as possible- ideally, even before police have interrogated a person. When an individual is arrested, the law enforcement officers that arrest them are required to inform the arrested person of their right to an attorney and to have an attorney appointed if they cannot afford legal representation. These warnings are called "Miranda warnings", after the 1960s Supreme Court case that first required them.
Often, cases involving child defendants are handled by the juvenile justice system. This system is less formal, and focuses on rehabilitation over punishment. Many criminal defense lawyers work in both justice systems, while others focus on one type or the other. It is sometimes possible for a defendant or defense attorney to negotiate with the government. The prosecutor may agree to drop charges if the defendants pleads guilty to a lesser charge. In all cases, the decision to plead innocent or guilty rests with the defendant.
If a defendant is found guilty, he or she may be sentenced to a period of probation, a fine, community service, restitution or other payment, or prison time. In some states, crimes such as rape or murder are punishable by death. A small number of federal crimes (such as treason) are also punishable by death. An experienced lawyer can work to find the best possible deal for their client. If this is not possible, the lawyer will fight in court for their client to convince the jury that there is reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant is guilty.
The possible consequences of a criminal conviction are extremely serious, and if accused of a crime, you can find yourself in confusing and frightening circumstances. To protect your legal rights and your future opportunities, you should immediately seek the assistance of an attorney with experience in criminal defense. Even if the charge seems minor or you are convinced your innocence means you have nothing to hide, the seriousness of the situation demands that you contact an attorney.