An Overview of Criminal Law

In criminal law, the government prosecutes any person accused of an act or the omission of an act that constitutes a crime, a violation of a public law. Most crimes are defined by a penal or criminal code or other statute. The lawsuit begins with the filing of criminal charges against the accused. The charges are generally contained in a written complaint filed by the government's attorney, the prosecutor (or district attorney), and must be clearly explained to the accused, also known as the defendant. Some jurisdictions require that a Grand Jury, a public body of citizens, hear evidence before allowing charges to be filed. The charging document is often referred to as an indictment. Once the action is commenced, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime charged, whether by strength of evidence, or by the defendant's own admission via a plea of guilt.

Crimes are generally separated into two categories: Felonies and Misdemeanors. Felonies are more serious crimes, often punishable by a year or more in prison, along with fines. A felony conviction has numerous other implications for the defendant, including a loss of the right to vote or possess firearms for some felonies in some jurisdictions. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes that may result in a local jail sentence of generally less than one year, small fines, or both.

State vs. Federal Court

State Courts are the venue or location for most criminal cases. All states have their own criminal or penal code, and defendants who violate this code are tried in the state in which the violation occurs, although depending on the case the venue may be changed to a federal jurisdiction or they may be extradited to another state to face charges for a different crime. Furthermore, a defendant may appeal a conviction in state court to a federal appeals court under some circumstances.

Below the state courts are a series of local, Municipal Courts, and crimes, especially misdemeanors, are usually prosecuted in the county in which the charges are filed, by either City Attorneys or District Attorneys.

If, however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or Homeland Security Agency is involved, will most likely be prosecuted in the federal court system for charges relating to the violation of federal laws or the laws of more than one state. In general, federal crimes involve much more serious penalties. Federal crimes are prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys.


Misdemeanors are generally considered less serious crimes. They are punishable, in general, by fines up to $1000 and a county jail term of up to one year. Misdemeanor convictions may result in a loss of privileges pertinent to the crime including ownership of a firearm (for violent offenses) or professional licenses, public offices, or public employment (for property offenses). Examples of misdemeanor violations include:

  • Trespass
  • Vandalism
  • Petty theft
  • Prostitution or soliciting a prostitute
  • Simple assault
  • Driving under the influence
  • Simple drug possession
  • Sale of pornography or erotic paraphernalia
  • Felonies


Felony Crimes

Felony crimes are considered more serious than misdemeanors, and are generally punishable by a state or federal prison term or even death. Depending on the crime, the sentence may also include serious fines and forfeiture of assets. Felony convictions generally result in loss of privileges and a forfeiture of certain civil rights, including the right to vote, and may lead to long-term restrictions on activities such as spending time with minors (for sex crimes) or computer use (for computer crimes). Examples of felony crimes include:

  • Murder
  • Theft or armed robbery
  • Possession of controlled substances for sale or transport
  • Rape
  • Assault and Battery
  • Criminal Threats
  • Child Molestation
  • The Criminal Process

The process of bringing a defendant to trial in state court varies by jurisdiction. The general steps may include:

  • Investigation with or without warrants
  • Arrest with or without warrants
  • Booking
  • Preliminary Hearing or Grand Jury Proceedings
  • Misdemeanor or Felony Complaint or Indictment
  • Arraignment
  • Settlement Conferences
  • Hearings on Legal Motions
  • Trial Proceedings
  • Sentencing Hearing
  • Appeal(s)

If you are arrested for violation of the law, a good criminal defense attorney should:

  • Thoroughly advise you of your rights in all situations
  • Keep you apprised of the case schedule, especially impending court date(s)
  • Advise you of what to expect in the criminal process
  • Develop a strategy for the defense of your case early in the process
  • Contact the police and/or prosecutor even before charges are filed to negotiate dropping charges or filing a lesser charge
  • Negotiate bail or release on your own recognizance
  • Make a thorough and independent investigation of your case
  • Seek to suppress illegally obtained evidence
  • Make all appropriate legal motions in your defense
  • Advocate and negotiate aggressively on your behalf
  • Interview witnesses before the hearings whenever possible and examine and/or cross-examine witnesses at all hearings
  • Thoroughly prepare the case for trial proceedings
  • Conduct the trial
  • Prepare a strategy and assemble witnesses for sentencing
  • Inform you of any plea deal offered by the prosecution and advise you of the advantages and disadvantages of same
  • The Cochran Firm Criminal Defense Section has a nationwide network of attorneys, all focused on one goal: Employing a strategy to achieve the best possible outcome for your case.


What can you do to improve the outcome of your case?

  • Gather evidence of your good character by collecting reference letters and documenting employment history, community service, church affiliations, etc.
  • Always exercise your right to remain silent-speak only to those who you trust and have statutory confidentiality privilege: psychologist, spouse, attorney, clergy in the confessional
  • Retain qualified counsel immediately, even before charges are filed
  • Keep a written record of all significant events and potential witnesses
  • DO NOT investigate your own case: investigations by you can be seen as attempts to distort or conceal evidence
  • As you can see, the investigation and prosecution of crimes involves complex procedures and rules. It is best to seek out a highly qualified and experienced criminal attorney, who is licensed to practice law in the jurisdiction where charges were filed.