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Criminal Law Overview

The criminal justice system can be intimidating and even frightening if you don't understand the laws, rules and procedures that govern it. This section offers an introduction to the concepts that shape the criminal justice system and tips for how to navigate it. Here, you will find information on how to read criminal statutes, how to mount a defense against criminal charges, what to look for when hiring an attorney, and more.

Responding to Crimes in Progress

In progress calls may be infrequent, but they are the most dangerous for law enforcement for the simple reason that the suspect is still on scene. As soon as the police receive a call that a crime is in progress, they send officers to the scene of the crime as soon as possible. The officers may be able to catch the criminal right on the scene. The officers will then arrest this person and take her to the police station or the county jail for booking.

Mens Rea - A Defendant's Mental State

The concept of mens rea, which is Latin for “guilty mind,” allows the criminal justice system to distinguish someone who set out with the intention of committing a crime from someone who did not mean to commit a crime. Mens rea refers to what the accused individual was thinking, and what his intent was at the time the crime was committed. There are some criminal laws, called strict liability laws, that don't require any mens rea at all. These laws are justified by claiming that no matter what you intended, the act itself deserves criminal punishment. An examples of a strict liability crime is statutory rape.

Why Motive Matters

Motive is an indirect way to prove that something was done intentionally or knowingly. For example, a defendant in an assault case may claim that he punched the victim by accident and thus didn't have the necessary intent for an assault (i.e., an intent to cause bodily harm). In criminal law, motive is distinct from intent. Criminal intent refers to the mental state of mind possessed by a defendant in committing a crime. With few exceptions the prosecution in a criminal case must prove that the defendant intended to commit the illegal act. The prosecution need not prove the defendant's motive. Nevertheless, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike may make an issue of motive in connection with the case.

Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney

Whether you were arrested for a crime against a person (like assault and battery or murder), a crime against property (like shoplifting, burglary, or arson), or any other criminal offense, a criminal defense attorney can help. For serious charges, it will be a rare defendant who does not benefit from having a competent criminal defense lawyer assist with the negotiation of a plea bargain, or to prepare a case for trial. A criminal defense lawyer should also be able to identify important pretrial issues, and to bring appropriate motions which might significantly improve a defendant's situation, or even result in the dismissal of charges.

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