Criminal Law

Criminal law is the type of law most people are familiar with because it's the kind that is portrayed often in movies and on TV. Criminal trials are started by the state instead of by a plaintiff and if a defendant loses a criminal trial they can be locked up. Because of the possible loss of liberty, the constitution guarantees that anyone charged with a crime is entitled to a criminal defense attorney even if they can't afford it. When you consider that criminal charges could result in a life sentence or even an execution, it makes sense that we would want to provide competent defense to those charged.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Mar 10, 2021

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  • Criminal law refers to all aspects of the criminal justice system from the commission of a crime all the way until the final appeal.
  • Anyone accused of a crime for which they could be locked up is entitled to a criminal defense attorney by the U.S. constitution.
  • Criminal defendants are entitled to trial by a jury of their peers but can waive that right and have a trial where guilt or innocence is determined by a judge (called a “bench trial”).
  • Criminal convictions can have long-lasting impacts even if they don’t result in any jail time.

Criminal law’s definition is any legal proceeding involved with the prosecution of those who have committed acts that can be punished by a loss of liberty. Being convicted of a crime, in other words, means you could be locked up.

There can be long term consequences for criminal convictions. For someone who has been charged with a crime, whether a DUI, assault, or a property crime like embezzlement or petty theft, worries about jail time and possible punishments and penalties may be just the beginning.

Criminal charges are serious, and even with a first offense, a person charged with a crime may be facing consequences that can affect their life permanently.

Unlike civil trials, anyone charged with a crime (aside from some minor offenses) is entitled to a defense attorney whether they can afford one or not. If you are confronted with a criminal charge, your defense will be aided incredibly by a competent criminal defense lawyer. Use our FREE search tool to begin your search for experienced criminal defense attorneys near you.

What is the difference between civil and criminal law?

One of the differences between the two broad areas of law has already been mentioned. With only a few exceptions, those charged with a crime are entitled to a criminal law attorney.

This is because of the other major difference between civil and criminal law: the penalties for losing a civil lawsuit are almost always financial. Some civil lawsuits can result in requiring a change in behavior, but overwhelmingly, losing a civil suit means having to pay something.

The penalties for losing a criminal lawsuit can include financial penalties, but also involve jail or prison sentences. That’s why you’re entitled to a criminal lawyer: the constitution prohibits having your liberty taken without due process, and the supreme court has held that adequate representation is a part of due process.

Finally, the people involved in a criminal case are different. The person who starts a case in civil court is the plaintiff. In a criminal case, the state starts the case and is called the prosecution.

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Criminal Sentences

Possible sentences for crimes vary depending on the nature and severity of the crime. Drunk driving, for example, can lead to sentences of up to ten or more years for second, third and subsequent offenses.  Even first drunk driving offenses can lead to mandatory minimum jail sentences of 30-90 days. Every subsequent DUI can, and likely will, be used to enhance the punishment for the next.

Property crime and white-collar crimes such as theft by fraud or securing documents by deception can lead to jail time, just like any other criminal offense. Defendants in Ponzi schemes and mortgage fraud cases have also been receiving stiff prison sentences, in contrast to historically receiving probation. 

Crimes that are considered violent, like assault, sexual assault, and domestic violence may also result in jail sentences and other registration requirements. Even simple misdemeanor assaults can warrant jail time.

If the offense is deemed a felony and a violent offense, the violent nature of the offense will likely enhance how a sentence is computed or served. For example, if a criminal defendant is prosecuted federally, the violent nature of the offense will “add points” to their sentence, which means they will be serving a longer sentence.

States apply different parole rules to violent offenders. If two criminals – a drug dealer and a sex offender – receive the same sentence on the same date, the drug dealer is more likely to be paroled at an earlier date because his offense alone is not classified as violent. Such classifications make a difference; the wording used in a final judgment can have a significant impact on the severity of a defendant’s sentence.

Criminal Defense

While not all crimes warrant the expense of a criminal lawyer, in general, most criminal charges are best handled by an attorney. An experienced criminal attorney is familiar with court procedures and will recognize possible defenses based on the particular facts of a criminal case.

In some circumstances, a good criminal attorney may be able to get charges reduced, or even dismissed. This can happen when there is not enough evidence for a conviction or when there is enough evidence to support a good defense.

Arrests and Searches

An experienced criminal lawyer will also review the more technical aspects of how evidence was seized. Evidence may be sufficient to convict a criminal defendant, but due to the way it was obtained by law enforcement, it could be ruled inadmissible by the presiding judge.

Inadmissible evidence cannot be used at trial, and if there is no evidence against you, your case will be dismissed.

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Criminal Lawyers

In short, it is vital that any defendant seek the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney before resolving or “taking a plea,” on their criminal case.

Many defendants are lured into accepting plea bargains with promises of “time-served” and “you’ll get out of jail today.” Even if a criminal defendant does get out of jail, the conviction and its consequences will last for years to come. An experienced criminal attorney will review paperwork, the sufficiency of the evidence, punishment options, and potential defenses.

Aside from taking the time to really look at the facts of the case, there are few get-out-of-jail-free cards. How a criminal case is handled before and during a plea can prevent a criminal conviction from bankrupting future educational and employment options.

You can use our FREE search tool to find an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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