Criminal laws consist of prosecution by the government of someone for an action that has been grouped as a crime. Civil cases, to the contrary, involve individuals and organizations seeking to deal with legal disagreements. In a criminal case, the state, through a prosecutor, triggers the suit, while in a civil case the victim brings the suit. Persons convicted of a crime may be imprisoned, ticketed, or both. However, people deemed accountable in a civil case may only have to give up property or pay money damages, but are not jailed.
A “crime” is any act or failure to act in violation of a public law outlawing or commanding it. Even though there are various common law crimes, nearly all criminal offenses in the United States are implemented by local, state, and federal governing bodies. Criminal laws range significantly from state to state. There is, nonetheless, a Model Penal Code (MPC) which acts as a good beginning position to obtain an understanding of the basic structure of criminal liability.
Criminal offenses include both felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are ordinarily violations punishable by imprisonment of a year or more, while misdemeanors are violations punishable by less than a year. However, no conduct is a crime if it has not been previously confirmed as such either by statute or common law. Recently, the list of Federal criminal offenses dealing with activities stretching out further than state borders or having special impact on federal operations, has developed.
All statutes describing criminal behavior can be broken down into their various elements. Most criminal offenses (with the exception of strict-liability offenses) include two elements: an act, or “actus reus,” and a mental state, or “mens rea”. Prosecutors have got to prove each and every element of the criminal offense to yield a conviction. Additionally, the prosecutor has to persuade the jury or judge “beyond a reasonable doubt” of every fact required to constitute the criminal offense charged. In civil cases, the plaintiff has to show a defendant is at fault only by a “preponderance of the evidence,” or more than 50%.
The heighten burden required in a criminal case reflects the serious consequences of a criminal conviction.