Criminal Law

The term “criminal law” refers to the actual laws, statutes, and rules that define acts and conduct as crimes, and establishes punishments for each type of crime. Criminal acts are generally those seen by the government to threaten public welfare or safety, the severity of which categorizes various crimes as either misdemeanor or felony. To explore this concept, consider the following criminal law definition.

Definition of Criminal Law


  1. The area of local, state, and federal law that defines criminal acts and offenses, governs the arrest, detention, charging, and prosecution of accused offenders, and sets specific punishments.


Late 16th century

Criminal Law vs. Civil Law

While civil law cases involve disputes between individuals or entities in which the parties seek a resolution to a contractual or other civil issue, criminal law cases involve the prosecution of an individual for a criminal act. In a civil case, the lawsuit is brought by an individual or entity seeking monetary or other remuneration from another individual or entity. A criminal law case is initiated by a prosecutor. An individual or entity found legally accountable in a civil lawsuit may be ordered to pay money, give up property, or perform certain contractual obligations, but are not subject to imprisonment. A person convicted of a criminal offense, however, may be ordered to pay a fine, and may be incarcerated.

What is a Crime

A crime is defined as any act or omission that violates a law. While most criminal acts in the U.S. are defined in written statutes, which vary significantly from state to state, some common law crimes do exist. No act may be considered or prosecuted as a crime if it has not already been established as a crime by statute, or by common law.

While common law is sometimes used in reference to laws and ideals brought forward through time, often from colonial England, it more currently refers to the edicts and decisions made by judges in court proceedings, which set a standard by which to judge future similar cases.

Crime of Omission

Individuals are seen as owing two types of duty towards others. First, they are bound to act according to the law, not violating current statute or the laws of the time. Second, people have a moral duty to act in certain circumstances, such actions described by moral values and traditions, referred to as a “moral duty.”

An example of moral duty might occur when Sam sees that Brian is drowning in shallow water. There is no specific law or statute that requires Sam to jump in and save Brian, but a moral duty would certainly require Sam to do whatever he could to save Brian. Common law and certain modern statutes apply objective consideration to whether or not an individual would risk injury to his health or well-being by proactively intervening to prevent injury to another. In the event an individual or entity failed to act, with the knowledge that his failure to act would contribute to or cause injury to another, he could be found guilty of a crime of omission.

In the drowning example above, if Brian was drowning in water only a foot deep, or there was no floatation device that Sam could toss to Brian, or if Sam had his cell phone in his pocket that could be used to call 9-1-1, yet Sam took no action to aid Brian, he could be found liable for a crime of omission. On the other hand, there is absolutely no requirement that a person put himself in harm’s way to provide aid, so if Brian was drowning in raging flood waters, Sam would not be held liable for not jumping in.

Elements of a Criminal Act

To find someone guilty of a criminal act, the prosecution must generally prove two different elements of the particular situation: (1) that the act occurred, and (2) that the act was purposeful, or that the accused had a conscious intent to act.

An “overt act” is something a person does on purpose, knowingly, or recklessly that is against the law. An act is “purposeful” when the person has a conscious intent to engage in the act, or to bring about a certain result. A purposeful act is deliberate and voluntary, not the result of a mistake, or an act coerced by another person. An action is “reckless” when the perpetrator knows it carries an uncalled-for risk for harm to another, yet consciously disregards that risk.

The “intent” to commit a criminal act must take place before the act itself, though the two may occur as instantly as simultaneous thoughts. The courts may assume criminal intent from certain facts of the case which would lead any reasonable person to make the same assumption. For example, the intent to commit armed robbery may be assumed by the defendant’s possession of a mask and gun, as long as the items coincide in some way with the robbery or attempted robbery.

Additionally, criminal intent may be assumed by the fact that the person committed the crime. In other words, it may be assumed a person intended that the “natural and probable consequences” of his voluntary or purposeful act would lead to the actual result. For example, it may be assumed that the person intended to commit murder by the fact that he purposefully pointed a gun at the victim and pulled the trigger.

Criminal Law Procedure

Criminal law procedure refers to the process of charging, prosecuting, and assigning punishment for criminal offenses. The actual procedures for dealing with criminal matters vary by jurisdiction, and written procedures exist for local, state, and federal jurisdictions, all of which generally begin with formal criminal charges, and end with the acquittal or conviction, and sentencing if appropriate, of a defendant.

In all U.S. jurisdictions, criminal law procedure places the burden of proof squarely on the prosecution, requiring the prosecution to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty. This relieves the defendant of having to prove his innocence, and any doubt as to the defendant’s guilt on any charge is resolved in his favor. This concept is known as “the presumption of innocence.”

Criminal Law in Action

The world is filled with people committing acts considered criminal offenses. From writing checks on a closed bank account, to murder and mayhem, the variety of ways people seek to thwart the law and cause harm to others is astounding. Throughout the years, many criminal law cases have been so astonishing as to make headlines.

The Leopold and Loeb Trial

The 1924 kidnapping and murder of a 14-year old boy by Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb, both sons of wealthy families and students of the University of Chicago, shocked the nation.

Leopold and Loeb, described as having a strangely intense relationship, engaged in a fantasy-turned-reality of committing the perfect crime. After much plotting and planning, the duo kidnapped 14-year old Bobby Franks as he walked home from school one day, killing him by striking him in the head with a chisel. They then drove to a nearby marshland, poured hydrochloric acid over Franks’ naked body, then stuffed it in a drainage culvert.

To carry out the scheme, the pair then sent a $10,000 ransom demand to Franks’ parents. The boy’s body was discovered and identified before the Franks family complied with the ransom demand, however, and the boys were arrested.

Leopold and Loeb’s now-famous attorney, Thomas Darrow, plead the boys guilty, then a month-long hearing ensued on the issue of whether they should face the death penalty. On August 22, 1924, Darrow presented a more than 12-hour argument in a jam-packed courtroom, attempting to convince the judge that he should take into consideration the boys’ youth, surging sexual urges, and even genetics that may have led to the commission of such a heinous crime.

Darrow’s efforts were met with derision as the prosecutor attacked his attempt to blame the crime on anything other than the defendants’ choice and intent. The judge, when announcing his decision, called the murder of Bobby Franks “a crime of singular atrocity,” for which “judgment cannot be affected” by the potential influences over the boys’ decisions. The judge’s sentence did, however, reflect consideration for the defendants’ young age, as well as the potential benefits to society and the science of criminology in the study of these two individuals. As a result, Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Trial of Bernhard Goetz

During a New York City crime wave in the 1980s, a group of African American 18- and 19-year old boys approached 37-year old commuter Bernhard Goetz, demanding that he give them five dollars. Goetz had previously been mugged by three African American young men, and had taken to carrying a concealed .38 revolver. Goetz, feeling threatened, rapidly fired five shots from his revolver, severely injuring four of the young men, one of which suffered a severed spinal cord.

As the incident was publicized, frightened citizens quickly hailed Goetz as a hero, dubbing him the “subway vigilante.” Goetz was eventually indicted by a grand jury on three charges of illegal possession of a weapon, though the grand jury initially refused to indict him on charges of attempted murder or reckless endangerment. The prosecutor took the matter to a second grand jury, eventually securing the desired attempted murder charges.

During the trial, the prosecutor attempted to paint Goetz as a racist man with a “twisted and self-righteous sense of right and wrong.” He stated Goetz had shot one of the teens in the back while he was running away, and shot another point blank while he was sitting down on a subway seat, severing the youth’s spinal cord. The jury didn’t buy that the teens were “doing absolutely nothing to threaten or menace” Goetz, and were innocent victims.

Goetz’s attorney, Barry Slotnick, pointed out that Goetz was not “Rambo,” but rather a person surrounded by young men threatening him, who took the appropriate action to defend himself from “hoodlums” and “thugs.” Slotnick pointed out that the young men took on an assumption of risk that a citizen whom they were threatening, and who had no avenue of escape in an enclosed subway car, would take the lawful and justifiable action of firing a weapon in self defense.

The jury decided immediately to find Goetz guilty of illegally possessing a loaded firearm, as there was no question he possessed the gun on the subway and had no license to carry it. From there deliberations turned to the issue of intent. In the end, the jurors acquitted Goetz on the four charges of attempted murder, stating that, while he clearly desired to end the threat, whether it was real or imagined, he had no motivation to kill the teens. One of the jurors was quoted as saying that, whether Goetz’s feeling of being trapped was reasonable or not, “he didn’t go out hunting.”

Criminal Law Attorney

When someone has been charged with a crime, he has a Constitutional right to representation by an attorney. A criminal law attorney is one who specializes in criminal defense, and has experience in dealing with the prosecutor’s office, as well as in criminal trials. A criminal law attorney may handle a wide spectrum of criminal case types, such as theft, fraud, and embezzlement, as well as DUI, drug crimes, violent crimes, and sex crimes. Some criminal defense attorney’s specialize in one area of criminal law, such as corporate fraud, or violent crimes.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Natural and Probable Consequences – a consequence of a particular act or course of conduct that may be reasonably foreseen by another person of average intelligence.
  • International Criminal Law – an area of international law that deals with conduct viewed as serious atrocities, holding individuals guilty of such conduct accountable. Such issues commonly include war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity, terrorism, and other crimes of aggression.