What is criminal defense law?
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Criminal law, also termed penal law, is the body of law defining offenses against the community. Criminal law is enforced by the state. This body of law dictates what conduct is prohibited by the state because it threatens to harm or actually harms the safety and welfare of the public. Criminal law classifies crimes into petty, misdemeanor, and felony offenses depending on the severity of the social harm caused. Criminal law also imposes punishments for breaking these laws. The severity of punishment under criminal law is generally related to the severity of the crime committed. Criminal punishment may consist of monetary fines, in-home detention, incarceration in prison or jail, and possibly death or capital punishment. The length of incarceration varies greatly depending on the severity of the crime, and could be a little as a day or as long as a life sentence. States enforce criminal law with five main objectives: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution. Colorado’s adult criminal code is contained within Title 18 of the Colorado Revised Statutes. Colorado’s children’s code is contained within Title 19 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

Criminal law

Retribution

Retribution is focused on punishing an individual for past criminal acts. It is based on the belief that a criminal should be made to suffer in some way for the harm inflicted on society. As long as everyone follows the rules of criminal law, everyone is benefitted and burdened in the same way. However, when a criminal breaks the rules, he owes a debt to society and punishment equal to the debt owed is considered just.

Deterrence

Criminal law offers benefits to society in the form of deterrence. Deterrence may be "general” or "individual.” When a criminal is punished, it serves as a general deterrence to future crimes. This is because others are less likely to commit future crimes if they have knowledge that a crime will be punished. For the criminal actually punished, that punishment is thought to create fear in the criminal that if he repeats the act he will be punished again. The goal of individual punishment is to make the penalty severe enough to outweigh any benefit the criminal may perceive in future criminal acts.

Incapacitation

Incapacitation is designed to remove criminals from society so that the public is protected from their misconduct. Imprisonment is the most common form of incapacitation used today, although the death penalty may still be imposed on the most violent murderers to permanently incapacitate those individuals.

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation is aimed at reforming the criminal teach the criminal the wrongness of his or her behavior. The goal is to return the reformed criminal to society as a more useful and valuable member. 

Restitution

Restitution is focused on the victim of a criminal act. The goal is to repair any harms inflicted on the victim by the offender. For example, if a criminal burglarizes a person’s home, he or she will be required to return or repay the cost of the items stolen. Restitution is most often combined with other forms of punishment.

Components of a Crime

Criminal law generally prohibits undesirable acts, and every crime is composed of criminal elements. In their most basic form, crimes have two components: the actus reus, or voluntary act that causes the social harm, and; the mens rea, or intent to commit the crime. In a few limited circumstances, only the criminal act is required to have committed a crime. These crimes are known as strict liability offenses. Common strict liability offenses are drunk driving crimes and statutory rape crimes.

Actus Reus

The actus reus or guilty act is the physical element of committing a crime. This condition may be met by voluntarily acting, threatening to act, or (in very limited situations) failing to act where there is a legal duty to act. While assaulting or threatening to assault a person are obvious criminal acts, crimes of omission (or failing to act) are less so. All crimes of omission are based on a failure to act where there is a legal duty of care. For example, a mother could be convicted of child abuse for allowing her minor children to remain with their father whom she knows is abusing them. Her failure to protect her minor children is the criminal breach of her legal duty. In all cases, whether actual acts, threats to act, or acts of omission, there must be causation. In other words, the offender’s action or omission must result in or cause the social harm. Without causation there is no crime. For example, if a person intends to shoot and kill another, but that individual is already dead when the shooting occurs, the person cannot be found guilty of murder. At most the person could be found guilty of attempted murder because the act of shooting another was not the cause of that individual’s death. Generally, causation can be broken by an intervening act of a third party, the victim’s own conduct, or another unpredictable event.

Mens Rea

The mens rea, or guilty mind, is the mental element of a crime. To have a "guilty mind” means to have the intention of committing some wrongful act. Under criminal law, intention is separate from a person’s motive for committing a crime. Modern criminal statutes generally have a mental element that falls within one or more of the following categories: intentional, knowing, willfulness, negligence, or recklessness. The most culpable mental state is intentional, negligence is the least. When a statute lists a mental element, the state must prove that element beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction. As mentioned above, some criminal statutes do not have a mental element, such as drunk-driving statutes. These crimes are also known as strict liability crimes. Overview of Crimes Colorado Revised Statutes Title 18 lists all of the crimes currently codified in the state of Colorado as well as recognized defenses for an individual charged with a crime, and sentencing options available to the courts. The crimes codified in Colorado are divided into felonies, misdemeanors and petty offenses. Generally, a crime falls within a particular classification based on the severity of the harm that particular crime inflicts on its victim or on society. Typical defenses to crimes include self-defense, defense of property, necessity, duress, and in some cases, intoxication. Examples of each class of crime are discussed below.

Felony Crimes

A crime is a felony if the state criminal code designates it as such or if a person convicted for the crime faces punishment ranging from imprisonment in excess of one year to a sentence of death. In Colorado, felonies are divided into six (6) separate classes, with six (6) being the least severe and one (1) being the most severe. Felony sentences are typically served in prisons.

Murder

In Colorado, a person commits first degree murder if, after deliberation and with the intent to cause the death of a person other than himself, he causes the death of that person or of another person. The murder statute also lists other scenarios that also constitute first degree murder, but the above definition is the general rule. If convicted of first degree murder in Colorado, a person faces either life in prison without parole, or possibly death. Colorado’s first degree murder statute includes a felony-murder provision. Felony-murder is the most severe strict liability crime in that if a person causes the death of another human in the course of committing one of the felonies listed within the statute, it does not matter if the person ever intended to kill anyone. The conviction for the underlying felony is enough to convict the person of first degree murder through the felony-murder provision.

Other Homicides

Colorado also recognizes other homicides within its criminal code, all of which are felonies of one degree or another. These include second degree murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and vehicular homicide. 

Other Felonies

Other crimes commonly recognized as felonies include rape, arson, burglary and kidnapping. Colorado’s criminal code lists theft, stalking, fraud, and other severe crimes, as crimes punishable as felonies. 

Misdemeanor & Petty Crimes

Misdemeanor and petty crimes are less severe crimes than felonies. As a general rule, misdemeanors are those crimes punishable by incarceration of one year or less. Colorado recognizes three (3) classes of misdemeanors with punishments ranging from a fine only up to eighteen (18) months imprisonment for a class one (1) misdemeanor offense. Misdemeanors are punished at a lower level than felonies because the harms inflicted by misdemeanor crimes are less severe. Misdemeanor sentences are usually served in jails rather than prisons. Typical misdemeanor crimes include petty theft, prostitution, simple assault, and marijuana possession. Petty offenses are considered even less severe than misdemeanors. Colorado recognizes two (2) classes or petty offenses. In Colorado, sentencing for petty offenses ranges between fines and not more than six (6) months in a state correctional facility. Colorado is notable in that possession of two (2) ounces or less of marijuana is considered a petty offense rather than a misdemeanor. Typical petty offenses include loitering, bringing alcohol into a stadium and public indecency.

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