Your Guide to Understanding US Criminal Law

If you commit an offense deemed against the law, you may be adjudicated through criminal or civil law procedure. If your crime caused injury to another person, you are subject to civil law. But criminal law will determine your fate if your actions are considered crimes against society. In this blog, you learn the basics of criminal law and what to do should you face criminal charges.

What is Criminal Law?
Criminal law seeks to punish crimes against society, like assault, battery, and murder. Penalties for criminal offenses are more severe than those for civil violations. They may include fines, imprisonment, or a combination of both. 

Understanding Criminal Procedure

Criminal procedure is the process through which the accused goes through to determine if they are guilty of their crimes. The Virginia criminal procedure has several doctrines and regulations governing it and protecting the defendant’s rights. 

For one, the presumption of innocence concept is used in most criminal offenses. It means that the defendant is innocent until proven otherwise. The burden of proof for such cases is with the Virginia state prosecution. They must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crimes they are accused of. 

At the same time, the constitution accords the defendant with basic rights and protections to ensure the procedure is fair. See below: 

  • Right to Due Process (Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights)- As the defendant, you can be adjudicated through the standard judicial system. 
  • Right to a Speedy and Public Trial (Sixth Amendment Rights)- You are entitled to a prompt trial open to the public. 
  • Right to be Informed of the Charges (Sixth Amendment Rights)- You have the right to know the nature of the charges against you. 
  • Right Against Self-Incrimination (Fifth Amendment Rights)- The law accords you to remain silent and not testify against yourself during the trial. 

As you can see, the Constitution ensures defendants are protected through the criminal procedure. But what goes on during this procedure?

Understanding the Stages of Criminal Procedure

Criminal procedure unfolds in different stages. Here is a rundown of the pre-trial phase: 

  • Arrest- this happens when the accused is taken into custody and their freedom restricted. 
  • Booking- After arrest, the suspect is taken to the police station, where they are booked. This stage involves gathering details like their fingerprint. 
  • Bail- The suspect may pay money known as bail to be released on condition that they agree to appear in court for the hearing. 
  • Arraignment- This is the first court proceeding in a criminal case. The judge reads the charges against the defendant and asks if they have an attorney. They will also ask the suspect to enter their plea, which can be guilty, not guilty, and no contest. It is here that future proceedings may also be scheduled. 

The Trial Stage 

Depending on the suspect's plea, the case may proceed to the trial stage. It unfolds in the following stages: 

  • Jury Selection- A pool of potential jurors will be asked several questions, after which both the defense and the prosecution will select candidates 
  • Opening Statements- At the onset of the trial, each side will present an overview of the case from their perspective. Most of the time, the prosecution starts, followed by the defense. 
  • Witness Testimony- Each side will call its witnesses and ask them questions. When the prosecution calls its witnesses, the defense can cross-examine them. Likewise, the prosecution can also cross-examine the defense’s witnesses, 
  • Closing Arguments- After witness testimony, the prosecution and the defense will each make a brief statement that summarizes the case from their perspective. 
  • Jury Instruction- The judge will then explain the charges against the defendant to the jury and the legal standard they should use in determining whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. 

The Need for a Criminal Defense Attorney 

“Working with a criminal defense attorney may help protect your rights if you have been charged with a criminal offense. The attorney will advocate for you to get the best outcome for your case in court,” says Parks Zeigler attorney Kellam T. Parks.

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