Criminal Law

Who decides how the criminal justice system works?
Though legislators have relatively unfettered power to decide whether a certain behavior should be a crime, many rules limit the ways in which the state or federal government can prosecute someone for a crime. These restrictions start with the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which provides basic protections-such as the right to refuse to testify against oneself, the right to confront one’s accusers and the right to a trial by jury-for people charged with crimes. State constitutions may increase (but not take away from) the federal protections. Federal and state legislatures can pass laws governing how criminal procedures work in their jurisdictions, but these laws cannot reduce the protections offered by the federal and state constitutions.

The interplay between constitutional provisions and legislative enactments is regulated by our courts. Courts decide whether or not a particular legislative rule, court practice or police action is permissible under federal and state constitutional law. What may seem like a slight variation from one case to another can be, in the eyes of a court, the determining factor that leads to a vastly different result. For example, a police officer is frisking a suspect on the street and feels a hard object in the suspect’s pocket. Suspecting that the object is a possible weapon, the officer reaches into the pocket and finds both a cardboard cigarette box and a packet of heroin. This action by the police officer — reaching into the pocket — would be deemed a permissible search under the rulings of most courts (to protect the officer’s safety), and the heroin could be admitted into court as evidence. However, if the object felt by the officer was soft and obviously not a weapon, then reaching into the suspect’s pocket might be deemed an illegal search, in which case the heroin couldn’t be used as evidence.

What’s the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?
Most states break their crimes into two major groups-felonies and misdemeanors. Whether a crime falls into one category or the other depends on the potential punishment. If a law provides for imprisonment for longer than a year, it is usually considered a felony. If the potential punishment is for a year or less, then the crime is considered a misdemeanor. In some states, certain crimes, called “wobblers,” may be considered either a misdemeanor or a felony, because under some conditions the punishment may be imprisonment for less than a year, and in other situations, the criminal may go to prison for a year or more. Behaviors punishable only by fine are usually not considered crimes at all, but infractions-for example, traffic tickets. But a legislature may on occasion punish behavior only by fine and still provide that it is a misdemeanor — such as possession of less than an ounce of marijuana for personal use in California.

What is the “presumption of innocence?” 
All people accused of a crime are legally presumed to be innocent until they are convicted, either in a trial or as a result of pleading guilty. This presumption means not only that the prosecutor must convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt, but also that the defendant need not say or do anything in his own defense. If the prosecutor can’t convince the jury that the defendant is guilty, the defendant goes free. The presumption of innocence, coupled with the fact that the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, makes it difficult for the government to put people behind bars.

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