Criminal law involves the prosecution of individuals who have engaged in conduct that local, state or federal authorities have chosen to classify as a crime. Frequently, a governmental body will choose to make conduct unlawful because it poses a risk of harm to individuals or society at large or because the proscribed behavior interferes with the peaceful enjoyment of another’s rights. While many crimes evolved at common law (judge made law), the federal government as well as states and local municipalities have enacted their own statutory penal codes that proscribe or require certain conduct and impose punishment for failure to comply. The accused in a criminal case is called the “defendant.” If the defendant is found guilty, the defendant will be sentenced, which is the process of dispensing punishment and may involve fines, incarceration, probation, community service and other penalties.
Most crimes have at least two elements, which include a certain act or failure to act (called “actus reas”) and a mental state (called “mens rea”). Criminal offenses are made up of elements that fall into one of these two categories. The prosecution must prove every element of the offense as it is defined in a statute. The standard of proof in a criminal proceeding is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Crimes commonly fall into three categories based on seriousness of the offense.
• Infractions: These are typically minor offenses like traffic violations including speeding, failure to yield and the like. Typically punishment for violation of an infraction is a fine.
• Misdemeanors: A misdemeanor is a crime with punishment that may include a fine and/or jail term of up to a maximum of a year in county jail. Typically, the repeated violation of laws that are misdemeanors become felonies. A typical misdemeanor might include possession of a small quantity of marijuana or possession of an open bottle of alcohol in a vehicle while driving.
• Felonies: A felony is a serious crime punishable by at least one year in state prison. If a person is convicted of a felony, he loses the right to vote or hold public office.
The criminal process includes all steps from commission of an illegal act and arrest to conviction and sentencing and finally appeal of a conviction. Once one is arrested, the accused may be able to pay bail and obtain release pending trial. The defendant may be charged by filing of a complaint or an indictment. A grand jury indictment is required in federal court. Whether bail is available and the amount of bail depends on the nature of the offense and the degree to which the accused is perceived to be a “flight risk.” After arrest, both the prosecution, who represents the governmental entity, and the defense will investigate and comply with the discovery process making witnesses, reports and evidence available to the other side. The prosecution and defense will typically negotiate, and the defendant may agree to plead guilty to a lesser offense or to receive a lesser sentence. Alternatively, the defendant may choose to proceed to trial, which will typically be before a jury. At trial, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant is convicted and sentenced, he may appeal the decision to a higher court.
Classification of Offenses
Many crimes can be classified into four broad classifications: (1) crimes against the person, (2) property crimes, (3) crimes against justice and (4) inchoate crimes. Crimes against the person and property are self-explanatory as in assault or theft. Crimes against justice involve interfering with the criminal or court process such as perjury or obstruction of justice. An inchoate crime refers to acts committed that were intended to result in another crime which may never have been completed such as conspiracy, attempt or solicitation.
The accused in a criminal case is guaranteed certain procedural protections under the United States Constitution and Supreme Court decisions. The Fourth Amendment protects the accused against unreasonable search and seizures. The government must have reasonable suspicion that a criminal act is being committed based on observed facts to temporarily detain a person and inquire further. Terry v. Ohio [392 U.S. 1 (1968)]. The government must have probable cause that the accused committed a crime before making an arrest. The Miranda decision requires a defendant to be warned of his right to an attorney and to have the attorney present during questioning as well as his right to remain silent. Miranda v. Arizona [384 U.S. 436 (1966)]. The Fifth and Sixth amendment of the United States Constitution offer protections for the accused during interrogations by authorities.
Many individuals accused of a crime make matters worse by making incriminating statements before consulting a lawyer. If you are accused of a crime under Maryland criminal law, you should immediately invoke your right to remain silent and request an attorney.