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: Feb 20, 2013

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A crime is any act or omission that violates a law which results in a punishment. Punishments can range from the payment of a fine to incarceration in jail. The level of the offense or crime will usually be set in proportion to the severity of the crime. For example, parking in a two hour parking zone for three hours is a crime. The punishment usually involves the issuance of a ticket and an individual paying a fine. On the other end, robbing someone at gun point is a much more severe crime that can result in a lengthy prison sentence. If a statute merely encourages a conduct, but does not provide a punishment, then a violation is not generally considered a crime, even though you may be exposed to some type of civil liability. For example, many family codes have general policy statements that encourage parents to resolve custody disputes in a friendly manner. If the custody battle turns ugly, a violation of the general policy rule, by itself, is not a crime because there is not a defined punishment.

What Is A Crime?

Which specific acts or omissions constitute “crimes” depends on the governmental bodies where you live. Most likely you will be subject to three sets of laws at any given time. The first set is defined by federal statute. The second set is outlined by your state government. The third set are laws are enacted by local government and are commonly referred to as municipal ordinances. Local rules focus on the conduct that the local community expects people to abide by like speed limits in school zones and noise control at certain hours. If there is ever a conflict in federal law with a state or local rule, federal law will generally control. This has been a heated discussion in California where medical marijuana is authorized by state statutes. However, federal prosecutors continue to prosecute cases involving medical marijuana because possession of marijuana is still illegal pursuant to federal statutes, without exception.

Most crimes require that you complete an affirmative act before you can be punished for the conduct. If you store drugs in the pocket of your jacket, you are affirmatively possessing a controlled substance. Some crimes, ironically, punish for omissions. For example, if you are aware that your boyfriend is physically abusing your child, you could be charged for failing to report child abuse. The basis of the crime isn’t what you did, but rather what you failed to do.

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The Role of Intent

Many people also assume that crimes are the result of an intentional conduct. Like noted above, if you intentionally had drugs, you could be punished for the intent of your conduct. However, crimes can also involve negligent conduct. Speeding is probably the best example. A good number of people never really intend to speed. They just (for instance) get caught up in their favorite song and never notice that they depressed the accelerator a bit too much. But regardless of the intent, they are still liable for the speeding ticket. Another crime which has been growing in momentum is using a cell phone while driving. Because of the number of children injured, many states and communities have begun enacting laws which prohibit you from driving in a school zone while using a cell phone. If you injure a child while going through a school zone and using a cell phone, you could be charged for negligently causing injuries to the child. You did not intend to hurt the child, but because of your negligence, you could still be criminally prosecuted and punished.

Crimes vary by jurisdiction—from state to state and town to town. If you are concerned about whether your conduct, or absence of conduct, could result in a criminal charge being filed against you, consult with a criminal attorney in your jurisdiction to see what exactly constitutes a crime in your town or state.