The U.S. justice system has been divided into to two distinct branches: Civil Law and Criminal Law.
The behavior of citizens in the United States is governed by state laws found in the state criminal codes and federal laws found in the federal penal code. When a person commits a crime, he or she violates one of these laws and criminal charges are filed. In some cases, a single act may violate both federal and state law. In such cases, whether a defendant is prosecuted in federal court or state court is at the discretion of the United States district attorney.
Felony v. Misdemeanor
Crimes are generally categorized as felonies or misdemeanors based on their nature and the maximum punishment that can be imposed. A felony, sometimes called a "high crime," involves serious misconduct that is punishable by death or by imprisonment of over one year (although the punishment can be less than one year at the judge's discretion). Most state criminal laws subdivide felonies into classes with varying degrees of punishment. Examples of felonies include murder, manslaughter, rape, fraud, robbery, racketeering, arson and white-collar crime.
Lesser crimes are classified as misdemeanors. A misdemeanor is misconduct punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a fine. Examples of misdemeanors include traffic violations, petty theft, simple assault and battery, trespass and public intoxication.
What Does a Criminal Lawyer Do?
A criminal lawyer, also known as a criminal defense lawyer, helps to defend persons and entities under investigation or accused of a crime. Under the United States Constitution, defendants are innocent until proven guilty. A criminal lawyer investigates the case and helps identify ways to introduce doubt into the question of a defendant's guilt. Based on the facts and evidence, the lawyer will develop a strategy, build a case and identify defenses to help prove the client's innocence or mitigate his sentence.
Why is Criminal Law Growing?
New laws are continually enacted. In recent years, U.S. lawmakers have significantly expanded the authority and reach of the justice system; in the last decade, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been charged and convicted under criminal laws. Federal laws, in particular, are expanding. According to a recent article:
"As federal criminal statutes have ballooned, it has become increasingly easy for Americans to end up on the wrong side of the law. Many of the new federal laws also set a lower bar for conviction than in the past: Prosecutors don't necessarily need to show that the defendant had criminal intent. By the turn of the 20th century, the number of criminal statutes numbered in the dozens. Today, there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes. There are also thousands of regulations that carry criminal penalties."
"There are many reasons for the rising tide of laws. It's partly due to lawmakers responding to hot-button issues--environmental messes, financial machinations, child kidnappings, consumer protection--with calls for federal criminal penalties. Federal regulations can also carry the force of federal criminal law, adding to the legal complexity."
Some of these new federal statutes don't require prosecutors to prove criminal intent, eroding a bedrock principle in English and American law. The absence of this provision, known as mens rea, makes prosecution easier, critics argue.
Types of Crimes
Criminal statutes are annotated on about 27,000 pages of the federal code. Each State of the Union has its own criminal law statutes. The outline below is not a comprehensive list of all crimes but it is a sampling of some of the more common practice areas of a criminal lawyer.
Criminal Traffic Offenses/ Suspended Licenses
Probation/Community Control Violations
White Collar Crimes
Bribery of public officials
Environmental law violations
Health care fraud
Honest services fraud
Tax evasion / tax fraud
Tax return fraud
Workers compensation fraud
Aggravated identity theft
Credit card fraud
Internet enticement of a minor
Possession with intent to distribute
Racketeering / RICO / Organized crime
Tax evasion / Tax fraud
Unemployment compensation fraud
Workers compensation fraud
Internet enticement of minors
DUI / DUI Manslaughter
Possession of fraudulent ID
Marijuana grow houses