Understanding Criminal Law -- How to Break Down a Criminal Statute
When faced with a criminal charge, it always helps to do your own research and reach an understanding of the statute you have been charged under. You should read the statute in the same way the prosecutor reads it. Lawyers are trained to read statutes and determine what the "elements" of the offense are. To do this yourself, you need to take each sentence and break it down into its essential components. For instance, here is a traditional burglary law:
"The breaking and entering the house of another in the night time, with intent to commit a felony therein, whether the felony be actually committed or not."
The key question to ask in order to understand the elements of a crime is: "if this didn't happen, would it matter"? If it matters, then it's an element; if it's an irrelevant detail, it's not. So, using the example statute above, here's a breakdown of the elements:
- The first necessary element of this law is that there be a "breaking and entering". After all, walking into a house by invitation wouldn't be a burglary.
- The second element is that it be a "house of another". If you broke into your own house, it wouldn't be a crime.
- The third element is that all this take place "in the night time". Although this is no longer a part of most burglary laws, this was the traditional way of defining a burglary.
- The fourth element of the crime is that you're breaking into another's house "with the intent to commit a felony therein". If you broke into a house of another by pure accident, such as mistaking it for your own home or to render aid to someone locked inside, or for some other purpose that didn't involve committing a felony, you wouldn't be committing a burglary (depending on the circumstances, you could be committing another crime).
- The final element you can view as a modification of the fourth. By saying "whether the felony be actually committed or not", the law is clarifying that it is really the "intent" to commit a felony that matters, not the actual commission of the felony. After all, we don't want people getting away with a crime simply because they were incompetent and failed to actually succeed in committing a felony.
How Does This Help You?
Understanding criminal law, and how to break down a statute, is crucial to understanding your rights and ensuring that you receive a fair trial. Remember, the prosecution must have sufficient evidence to prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt in order for you to be convicted. Knowing the elements of a crime you have been charged with can also help you get the most out of the time you spend with your attorney. After all, you may know of certain evidence that can directly challenge an element.
The earlier you're aware of possible evidence in your favor and can relay it to your attorney, the greater the chance that the evidence can be obtained and preserved for trial or for use in plea bargaining. Also, there are common defenses that are often based on the elements of a crime which may also benefit you if they can be developed early in the process.
Want to Learn More? Get a Free Attorney Consultation
Understanding criminal law, and how to break down a statute, is crucial to understanding your rights and ensuring that you receive a fair trial. Criminal statutes aren't always written in a way the average person can understand. As unfair as that may seem, it is the way our criminal justice system operates. You can get help, however. Get a free case review from a criminal defense attorney.