Criminal Law

Updated April 15, 2024
8 min read
Criminal Law; ID badge, envelope, Themis, US flag, building, handcuffs

Criminal law is one of the core pillars of any nation’s legal system. Criminal law practitioners seek to prosecute and/or defend people suspected of committing criminal offenses. The severity of a conviction depends on the circumstances of individual cases.

This guide provides a comprehensive overview of criminal law for legal professionals and anyone curious about the legal system. Use this guide to gain useful insights into differences between felonies and misdemeanors, rights and obligations awarded to suspects, and how longs a criminal trial lasts.

What Is Criminal Law?

Criminal law refers to cases where suspects are charged with endangering innocent lives. Risks to public safety are not always limited to physical crimes. Both emotional and psychological damage inflicted on innocent victims are subject to the penalties of criminal law.

There are different categories of criminal law. Serious criminal acts are deemed felonies by prosecutors, which are susceptible to the harshest penalties of the legal system. Less serious charges are misdemeanors, infractions, or other minor offenses. These minor charges carry less severe punishments.

Judgments issued for criminal charges are done so in the interests of the public. Laws are enforced to maintain peace, order, and public safety.

Key Terms in Criminal Law

As a practice, criminal law exists to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. Within the scope of the criminal legal system are a number of common terms that define various crimes, charges, and scenarios.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the most prevalent terms in criminal law.

  1. Arrest is the act of taking suspects into the custody of the criminal legal system.

  2. Homicide is the killing of one human by another. Homicide charges are distinct from murder charges — in the same manner that murder charges are different from manslaughter charges — because a homicide includes cases where the death of another person is unintentional.

  3. Missing Person – Law enforcement designates someone as a missing person when that person cannot be contacted or located and there’s no confirmation of their death.

  4. Warrant is a legal document that authorizes police and other law enforcement agencies to execute search and seizures of suspects’ personal property. Warrants are also granted by judges to issue arrests of suspects.

  5. Counsel – When legal advice is provided to suspects, victims, or law enforcement, it’s classified as counsel.

  6. Damages are any financial compensation awarded to plaintiffs by defendants for sustained injuries resulting from a crime.

  7. Grand Jury is a group of ordinary citizens summoned to evaluate evidence of criminal allegations against a suspect.

  8. Habeas Corpus is a decree within the legal system to protect individuals from unlawful or indefinite imprisonment. Suspects and their legal counsel may invoke habeas corpus if or when law enforcement lacks physical evidence to justify detention.

  9. Injunctions are legally binding orders issued by the court against individual suspects.

  10. Parole describes when convicted felons are released to the community under the supervised authority of a parole officer.

Types of Criminal Law

There are two principal categories of criminal law. Serious offenses that threaten public safety are known as felonies, while minor offenses for general mischief are called misdemeanors by the courts.

Here’s a quick overview of the two classes of criminal charges.


In criminal law, felonies are serious crimes that carry punishments of at least one year or more in prison. Convictions for felony charges may result in the suspension of civil rights.

Examples of felony crimes include but are not limited to the following:

  • Murder;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Arson;
  • Rape;
  • Drug dealing;
  • Aggravated assault;
  • Manslaughter; and
  • Resisting arrest.

Prosecutors dedicate copious resources towards prosecuting felony charges. Suspects facing criminal law prosecution for felony charges are often made examples of by the justice system.


In contrast to serious felony charges, misdemeanors are criminal acts where the damage inflicted upon victims is less significant. Punishment for misdemeanor crimes typically amounts to less than a full year in prison.

Common examples of misdemeanor crimes under criminal law include the following:

  • Trespassing;
  • Vandalism;
  • Disorderly conduct;
  • Driving under the influence;
  • Public intoxication;
  • Burglary;
  • Theft; and
  • Disturbing the peace.

In some cases, suspects convicted of misdemeanor charges in criminal law may avoid imprisonment altogether. Many misdemeanor penalties are imposed in the form of fines that suspects pay the courts to issue their release from the criminal justice system.

Types of Criminal Defenses

Within criminal law, felonies and misdemeanors are further segmented into different types of criminal acts. As a result, different types of criminal defenses can be made before the courts to plead a case.

Here’s an overview of the different types of criminal defenses that you can make depending on the details of the case.

1. Personal Crimes

Personal crimes describe any action that may endanger an innocent person or the lives of a group of innocent people. Under criminal law, these actions can amount to physical harm, psychological harm, or emotional abuse that poses any harm to the victims.

Defending personal crimes in a court of criminal law requires counsel to argue the defendant's perspective on the evidence. Use documents, witness statements, and the defendant’s own testimony to present a provable story to the judge or jury in an effort to minimize the charges.

2. Property Crimes

Any criminal act that results in damage to a victim’s personal property is subject to charges of property crimes. In a court of criminal law, arguing a defense against such property crime charges will depend on the particular circumstances of the case.

Two of the most common criminal law defenses against property crimes are mistake of fact and coercion defenses. In the case of the former, counsel will argue that the defendant made an honest mistake and had no intention of causing any property damage. In the case of the latter, counsel will argue their client was compelled by another party to engage in criminal mischief.

3. Inchoate Crimes

Inchoate crimes are rather common, but the name itself is one of the lesser-used terms in criminal law. Inchoate crimes are actions taken by suspects to engage in more serious crimes, though they may ultimately opt out of following through on their intent. The most common examples of inchoate crimes are attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation.

Within a criminal law court, the most commonly used defense against inchoate crimes is that the defendant abandoned their intent. Therefore, the defense will argue that their actions demonstrate a choice not to commit a criminal act and that any inchoate charges should be dropped.

4. Statutory Crimes

Statutory crimes refer to any act by an individual that violates statutes within the bounds of criminal law. Statutory crimes not only encompass felonies and petty misdemeanor charges. They also refer to actions that violate legal duties, such as ignoring a summons to appear before a judge.

Criminal law defenses against statutory charges involve the attempt to prove that other external factors contributed to the criminal acts. Commonly cited reasons include intoxication, provocation, or entrapment as reasons that justify the accused actions. In many statutory crime cases, counsel will negotiate a plea bargain to achieve a more lenient sentence from the courts.

5. Financial Crimes

Financial crimes describe any action that criminally manipulates financial systems to engineer illegal profits for the perpetrator(s). In criminal law, the most commonly cited examples of financial crimes include fraud, bribery, theft, tax evasion, insider trading, or market manipulation.

Another term used to describe financial crimes is white-collar crime. These crimes are generally non-violent acts of criminality, though there are still victims of financial schemes. In criminal law, most white-collar crimes involve incidents of public corruption, money laundering, and different forms of fraud. Commonly used defenses for financial crimes involve proving a lack of intent to commit the felonies.

Rights and Obligations in Criminal Law

Officers of criminal law have enacted legal documentation that outlines specific rights and obligations awarded to accused suspects. Here are some of the most renowned rights of the accused in any criminal proceeding.

  1. Right to equality before the law and the courts. Anyone charged with a criminal offense is granted universal legal rights. This means that all defendants, regardless of age, gender, background, or sexual orientation, must receive fair and equitable treatment by judges, prosecutors, and police enforcement.

  2. Presumption of innocence. International criminal law also stipulates that any accused suspects must be granted a presumption of innocence until prosecutors can prove a criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

  3. Privilege against self-incrimination and the right to silence. Suspects also possess universal rights not to be compelled to testify against their own self-interests. Suspects are also protected against coercive efforts to forcibly extract a confession of guilt.

  4. Right to an interpreter. Every suspect has the right to fully understand the criminal charges brought against them. If suspects speak a different language than criminal law officers who bring forth the charges, they have the right to an interpreter so they can fully comprehend their situation.

Federal Rules and Regulations in Criminal Law

Professionals specializing in criminal law must abide by certain rules and regulations when bringing forward a criminal case. Every criminal case proceeds in different stages, each carrying specific rules and regulations that must be followed.

  1. Preliminary responsibilities. Documents describing the nature of the criminal law charges, the arrest warrant, and the summons to appear in court must all be filed and submitted.

  2. Grand jury and indictments. When the public interest requires a grand jury, a court must order a panel of 16 to 23 members of the public to fulfill their civic duties. The court must also issue indictments for felony or misdemeanor charges.

  3. Arraignment and preparation. An arraignment must be held in open court to fully inform the defendant of the nature of the criminal law charges.

  4. Venue and trial. The case is assigned to a judge, and a court venue is selected to host the trial. Procedures commence to determine whether the trial will or will not have a jury, how to document written and oral testimony, and how to submit witness statements to the courts.

  5. Post-conviction procedures. If a guilty verdict is rendered, follow-up proceedings are arranged to determine criminal law sentencing guidelines or conditional release stipulations.

When You Need a Criminal Law Lawyer

If you have been charged with a criminal law offense, you should immediately seek legal counsel from an experienced criminal lawyer.

It’s natural to feel confused and overwhelmed when faced with criminal charges. As a result, you may not exercise your legal rights and could inadvertently open yourself to unnecessary legal scrutiny.

The purpose of a criminal attorney is to advise you of your rights, provide counsel during law enforcement interrogations, and represent you in court should the case proceed to trial.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between civil and criminal law?

The difference is that civil law is primarily about a dispute between two individuals over their respective rights. Criminal law involves law enforcement, government bodies, and officers of the court bringing charges against a person for suspected crimes. Criminal cases are much larger than civil cases, and the consequences are of greater significance.

How long does a criminal case take?

The length of a criminal trial will vary depending on the severity of the crimes. For example, felony cases average between four to six months and, in some cases, last for several years.

On the other hand, misdemeanor cases are settled in much less time. Depending on the complexity, a misdemeanor case could be finalized in as little time as one month or as long as six months. The length of time will vary by state, so you should discuss timing with your legal counsel.

Can I see the criminal record of someone else?

The best way to uncover someone’s criminal record is through a digital record check service. You can consult with local law enforcement departments or request a record check with the FBI. Record check services maintain vast databases of federal and regional records. You may require authorization to view these records, depending on the location.

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