Section 1.1: Criminal Law & Investigations

Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation by Adam J. McKee

A crime is an act or omission that is contrary to law for which there is some sort of formal punishment.  From a practical standpoint, a crime is simply a violation of some criminal law. Criminal law is the branch of law that seeks to prevent harm to society by prohibiting certain acts and omissions and punishing those who commit those acts or omissions. Because criminal law seeks to protect society as a whole, criminal prosecutions are brought forward in the name of the state, not in the name of the victim, as it would be in a civil law case.  Usually, the state’s case is argued by an attorney called the prosecutor.  The person who is accused of the crime is known as the defendant.

Sources of Criminal Law

In the United States, there are three primary levels of government:  local, state, and federal. Most criminal cases originate in violations of state law and are investigated by local law enforcement.  Federal prosecutions make up only a small fraction of criminal cases. Thus, most criminal investigators will need to be concerned with the criminal law on the state level.  Most of these laws can be grouped into four major categories:

      1. Common law
      2. Statutory law
      3. Case law
      4. Administrative law

Understanding Common Law

Let’s dive into a fascinating aspect of the legal world called “common law.” It’s like the old, wise guide of our legal system, teaching us how laws have evolved over time.

What Is Common Law?

Common law is like a big, ancient library of decisions made by judges. Think of it as a collection of stories, each telling us how a particular problem was solved in the past. Originally, this system started in England, long before smartphones and the internet. When people decided to settle in America, they didn’t start from scratch; they brought this treasure trove of legal wisdom with them. Except for Louisiana, which follows a different beat, most states in the U.S. dance to the tune of common law.

Why Is It Called “Common”?

The “common” in common law doesn’t mean ordinary. Instead, it stands for the idea that everyone, regardless of who they are, should be treated equally under the law. If two situations are pretty much the same, the law says the outcome should be the same too. This principle of fairness is at the heart of the common law system.

From Judges to Journals

In the past, there wasn’t a big book of laws everyone could check. Instead, judges would make decisions based on what seemed fair and right, considering how similar cases were handled before. These decisions were written down, creating a record that other judges could refer to. Over time, these collections of decisions became a key part of the law itself. That’s why, even today, many of our laws and legal ideas trace back to common law.

The Legacy Continues

The cool thing about common law is that it’s not just history. It’s alive and kicking in today’s legal system. Many of the rules and principles we follow in criminal law (think about the laws against theft or assault) have their roots in common law. It shows how past wisdom continues to guide us in solving today’s problems.

🔍 Reflect

How do you think the principle of treating similar cases similarly under common law affects your sense of fairness in the legal system?

Navigating Statutory Law

Now, let’s shift our focus to another cornerstone of our legal system: statutory law. Imagine if making laws was like crafting a recipe for a well-functioning society. Statutory law would be the cookbook, filled with recipes decided by chefs in various kitchens—our legislators.

What is a Statute?

A statute is basically a fancy word for a law that’s been officially written and passed by a group of lawmakers. These lawmakers work at different levels. For example, at the highest national level, we have the U.S. Congress. Then, each state has its own team, known as the legislature. Even local areas, like cities or counties, get in on the action, passing what are known as ordinances. All of these—federal laws, state laws, and local ordinances—are types of statutory law.

Why Statutory Law?

While common law is like a patchwork quilt of judge-made decisions, statutory law is a more direct approach. Think of it as building a house from a set of blueprints. Lawmakers look at the issues and needs of today’s world and decide on new laws or update old ones to make our society run smoother. In many states, the rules of criminal law are now completely outlined in statutory law, making it clearer what is allowed and what is not.

Organizing the Law

Laws aren’t just tossed into a pile. They’re neatly organized, like books in a library, into codes. These codes make it easier for everyone, from lawyers to everyday citizens, to find the laws on a specific topic. For criminal laws, this collection is often called the criminal code or penal code. It’s like having a detailed index that guides you to exactly the law you need to know about, whether it’s about traffic rules, theft, or anything else.

The Role of Codes

Codes serve as a roadmap, helping navigate the legal landscape. By arranging laws by topic, they provide clarity and order, making it easier for everyone to understand their rights and obligations. This organized system ensures that whether you’re a student, a professional, or just a curious individual, you can access and understand the laws that affect your daily life.

🔍 Reflect

Considering the structured nature of statutory law, how do you think this affects people’s ability to find and understand the laws that govern their actions?

Exploring Case Law

Imagine diving into a deep sea of legal decisions, each one a unique story of a dispute resolved or a rule interpreted. This vast ocean is what we call case law. Unlike the laws passed by legislatures, case law is crafted in the courtrooms, particularly by appeals courts, through the process of making decisions on complex legal questions.

How Courts Make Law

While many think of lawmaking as the job of Congress or state legislatures, courts play a crucial role too, but in a different way. When appeals courts (these are the courts that review the decisions of lower courts) look at a case, they’re not just deciding who wins or loses. They’re also interpreting the law itself. This might involve figuring out what a law means, how it applies to new situations, or even if a law fits within the rules of the Constitution.

The Power of Opinions

The tools of this trade are the courts’ opinions. These aren’t just casual thoughts but detailed explanations of how and why the court reached its decision. Each opinion adds a new layer to our understanding of the law. Over time, these layers build up to form case law—a collection of all the past decisions that now guide how laws are applied. It’s like a living history book, showing how our interpretation of the law evolves over time.

Case Law in Action

This body of case law becomes a roadmap for everyone in the legal system, from police officers to the judges in lower courts. They look to these decisions to understand how to interpret laws in the cases they handle. It’s a way of ensuring that similar cases are treated in similar ways, maintaining fairness and consistency in our legal system.

The Impact of Case Law

Case law ensures that our legal system can adapt and respond to new challenges. It’s a dialogue between the past and the present, allowing us to apply time-tested principles to the modern world. This evolving nature of case law means that our legal system grows with us, reflecting changes in society, technology, and our understanding of justice.

🔍 Reflect

How do you think the evolving nature of case law influences our daily lives and the way we understand right from wrong?

Unraveling Administrative Law

Let’s step into the world of administrative law, a less talked about but incredibly impactful corner of the legal system. Imagine a complex machine, with countless gears and levers, each necessary for the machine to work smoothly. In the machinery of our society, administrative law helps keep everything running just right.

The Need for Expertise

Legislatures, the groups of people elected to make laws, have a big job. They’re responsible for creating the rules that guide how our society operates. But even with the best intentions, they can’t be experts on everything. Our world is too complex, filled with specialized areas that require a deep understanding. That’s where administrative agencies come in. These are the experts in specific areas, like the environment, healthcare, and transportation.

Delegating Authority

Recognizing their own limits, legislatures delegate the power to make certain rules to these administrative agencies. It’s a bit like a team captain picking team members for their specific skills. These agencies then create rules and regulations that manage the nitty-gritty details of their particular area. This process allows for a more nuanced and informed approach to governing complex sectors of our lives.

The Force of Law

The rules and regulations set by these agencies aren’t just suggestions; they carry the weight of law. This means that if someone breaks these rules, they can face real consequences, like fines or even jail time. It’s a way of ensuring that the standards set by experts are followed, keeping us safe, healthy, and fair.

The Role of Administrative Law

Administrative law encompasses all these rules and regulations. It’s a vast, often unseen part of our legal landscape, but it touches almost every aspect of our daily lives. From the quality of the air we breathe to the safety of the cars we drive, administrative law is there, making sure everything runs as it should.

The Impact on Society

Through administrative law, our society can adapt quickly to new challenges and technologies. These agencies have the flexibility to respond to changes faster than legislatures typically can, ensuring that our laws stay relevant and effective. It’s a dynamic and vital system that helps our complex society function smoothly.

🔍 Reflect

How does knowing that specific agencies are dedicated to regulating different aspects of society affect your view on the overall effectiveness and fairness of our legal system?


Classification of Crime

When we talk about crimes, it’s essential to understand that not all offenses are seen as equal in the eyes of the law. Picture a sliding scale, with smaller offenses on one end and more severe crimes on the other. This concept helps ensure that the punishment fits the crime, keeping our justice system fair and balanced.

Understanding Felonies

At the more serious end of the scale, we have felonies. These are the heavy hitters of the criminal world, involving serious offenses that society believes merit significant consequences. If someone is convicted of a felony, they’re looking at more than just a slap on the wrist. We’re talking about serious penalties, including a year or more in prison. These crimes might include things like robbery, murder, or major fraud, and they reflect actions that significantly harm individuals or the community at large.

The Role of Misdemeanors

On the lighter side, we find misdemeanors. Think of these as the offenses that, while definitely wrong, don’t cross into the territory of causing severe harm. Misdemeanors come with less severe punishments, typically involving less than a year in jail, often served in local or regional facilities. These crimes might include things like petty theft or minor traffic violations. The idea here is that the punishment should not only fit the crime but also offer a chance for correction and rehabilitation.

Why the Distinction Matters

This classification system—splitting crimes into felonies and misdemeanors—helps the legal system apply justice in a more nuanced and fair way. It acknowledges that while breaking the law is always serious, the degree of seriousness can vary greatly. This approach helps tailor the legal response to the individual case, ensuring that the punishment is appropriate for the level of harm caused.

The Impact on Justice

By differentiating between types of crimes, the legal system can more effectively allocate its resources, focusing more effort on preventing and punishing the most harmful offenses. It also provides a framework for understanding the consequences of different actions, giving individuals a clearer sense of the legal boundaries and the potential repercussions of crossing them.

🔍 Reflect

How do you think the classification of crimes into felonies and misdemeanors affects individuals’ perceptions of the legal system and their understanding of the consequences of their actions?

Breaking Down the Elements of Crimes

Understanding crimes and how they’re judged is a bit like putting together a puzzle. Each piece represents a different aspect of what makes an action a crime under the law. Let’s explore these pieces, so we can see the bigger picture of how criminal law works.

The Basics: Actus Reus and Mens Rea

First things first, every crime has certain basic elements that need to be present for someone to be found guilty. These elements include the actus reus, which means “guilty act,” and the mens rea, or “guilty mind.”

  • Actus Reus: This could be an action, like stealing something, or a failure to act, like not paying taxes. It’s about doing something the law says you shouldn’t do or not doing something the law requires.
  • Mens Rea: This is about what’s going on in someone’s mind when the act is committed. It looks at whether someone intended to do the crime or knew what they were doing could lead to harm. It’s the difference between doing something harmful on purpose and it happening by accident.

The Importance of Intention

Not all harmful actions are crimes. Sometimes, accidents happen where no one meant for anything bad to occur. The law usually doesn’t punish these as crimes. For an action to be criminal, there needs to be some level of intention or recklessness behind it.

  • Recklessness: This is when someone knows their actions are risky but decides to go ahead with them anyway.
  • Negligence: This happens when someone doesn’t see the risk in their actions, even though most people would. It’s like being careless about the potential harm.

Different Types of Crimes

Some crimes are straightforward, needing just the act and the intention to be proven for someone to be guilty. Others are more complex, requiring proof of additional elements like causing harm or the act directly leading to harm. For example, in a murder case, the law needs to show not just the intention and the act but also that the act led to someone’s death.

Lesser-Included Offenses

Sometimes, if the evidence isn’t strong enough to prove a more serious crime, a person might still be found guilty of a lesser offense. It’s a bit like stepping down from charging someone with a high crime to a lower one because the elements of the lower crime are part of the higher crime but are easier to prove.

Defenses to Crimes

Even when it looks like all elements of a crime are present, there are still defenses available that might lead to someone being found not guilty. These defenses can be about:

  • Procedures: Arguing something went wrong in the legal process, like a trial not starting on time.
  • Justifications: Showing the act was done for a good reason, such as self-defense.
  • Excuses: Explaining there were special circumstances, like insanity, that should lead to forgiveness.

Gathering Evidence

For investigators, understanding these elements is crucial. They need to gather evidence to prove each piece of the puzzle: the act, the intention, the harm, and the link between the act and the harm. Plus, they need to be aware of any possible defenses the accused might have.

🔍 Reflect

Considering the complexities of proving the elements of a crime, how does this influence your views on the accuracy and fairness of criminal investigations and trials?

Modification History

File Created:  05/02/2019

Last Modified:  04/03/2024

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