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 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:
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:
The process of bringing a defendant to trial in state court varies by jurisdiction. The general steps may include:
If you are arrested for violation of the law, a good criminal defense attorney should:
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