What Is A Crime? – A Simple Introduction To Criminal Law

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A crime is an act that the state has identified as having a serious social impact. It is a public wrong that involves some form of harm to society.

According to the University Of London Law School, a crime is:

…when the conduct in question has a sufficiently serious social impact to justify the state, rather than (in the case of breach of contract or trespass) the individual affected, taking on the case of the injured party.

Being found guilty of a crime generally leads to some form of punishment such as time in jail whereas other breaches of the law such as Torts (acts against a person) generally lead to compensation for loss or damages.

Examples of criminal acts

  • Murder
  • Assault
  • Fraud
  • Tax evasion
  • Insider Trading
  • Sexual offenses
  • Property offenses.

Who brings the criminal charges to court? 

Because crimes are generally against society, it is the legal authority or state who brings criminal charges against a person. In the U.S. allegations of criminal behavior are brought to the local police, the FBI, or another appropriate law enforcement agency, and the U.S. attorney’s office, in coordination with a law enforcement agency, begins criminal proceedings. In the U.K. this may be the  Crown Prosecution Service.

A person convicted of a crime may be put in jail for a period to protect the rest of society from them and their actions. Corporations can also be charged with criminal offenses with corporate managers facing fines and jail sentences if they are found guilty of criminal actions.

Legal terms you need to know

Criminal Charges: This is where someone has been accused of a criminal offense. It means that a government authority (police or other authorized authority as described above) has made a formal accusation that someone has committed a crime.

Criminal Case: This is the criminal proceeding after a person has been ‘charged’ with a crime. It is usually the ‘state’ or ‘the people’ versus the defendant (the accused).

Victim: This is the person or people who have suffered in some way and have made the accusation. This may be the government or state.

Defendant: This is the person, people, or corporation who has been accused of criminal wrongdoing. A formal accusation has been made by a governmental authority asserting that somebody has committed a crime.

Charging document:  A document that contains one or more criminal charges or counts. This can be in several forms, including a complaint, information, or indictment.

Indictment: A written statement that formally accuses someone of a crime.

Conviction: This is when a defendant has been found guilty of a criminal offense. They are ‘convicted’ of the crime after a guilty verdict is given in court and then they are sentenced.

Sentence: ‘Sentence’ refers to the amount of prison time ordered after conviction. This is the punishment given to a person (the defendant) when they are convicted of a crime.

Felonies: These are serious criminal acts such as murder and rape.

Misdemeanors: These are lesser criminal offenses such as:

  • Minor drug offenses
  • Drunk driving
  • Petty theft, including shoplifting
  • Minor or simple assault or battery
  • Trespassing
  • Vandalism
  • Resisting arrest.

The Criminal System

Criminal law is written in statutes. These are laws passed by the legislative body (the elected legal representatives) who decide what is harmful to society. Criminal laws and punishment may vary between countries.

You can see the criminal law U.S. Code: Title 18 here. (External link)

You can see the Criminal Law Act of 1967 from the U.K. here(External Link)

More Cleverness

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What is the rule of law?


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Posted in Business Law, Business Law - Introduction, Criminal Law.