Criminal Law Basics – How Criminal Law Works

When charged with a crime, it is important to understand how the system works. Criminal law differs from civil law. This article will provide a broad overview of how crime is defined, what criminal law is, and the general process of a criminal case.

What is Crime?

As our society has grown and developed over time, certain types of conduct have been identified as dangerous to citizens and damaging to society as a whole. In anticipation of this conduct and sometimes in response, our local, state and federal governments have developed laws to define damaging behavior as a “crime” and to create punishments for it, such as community service, fines or imprisonment.

A crime may only harm a specific person, but is fundamentally considered an offense against society. Most crimes involve an illegal act or a failure to act, which results in something illegal.

General Classification of Crimes

Governing bodies have separated the severity of crimes and classified them based upon the extent and range of penalties earned by committing them. More serious offenses trigger harsher penalties. Milder offenses receive lesser consequences.

In the United States, the two major types of crimes are defined as felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are serious crimes that can be punishable by multiple years of imprisonment and substantial fines. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes with varying penalties, including the possibility of incarceration.

Further, felonies are divided into three levels: Felony 1, 2, and 3. The penalties range from up to seven years incarceration and $15,000 fine to up to forty years and $25,000 fine. Misdemeanors are also divided into three levels: 1, 2, and 3. Sentences range from up to one year incarceration and $2,500 fine to five years and $10,000 fine.

Though states may classify crimes differently, throughout the U.S. criminal law process, there are constitutional protections to ensure the rights of the accused are guarded. These constitutional rights provide a balance between the government’s interest in investigating and prosecuting criminals and the preservation of our democratic, individual freedoms.

Criminal Law and Criminal Courts

Criminal law is the system of laws that has been set in place to penalize and rehabilitate those who commit crimes and in the best interest of society. Criminal courts determine if an individual disobeyed the law and dictate the consequences to the offender.

In criminal court, the government is represented by a prosecutor who brings charges against the defendant for allegedly breaking the law. The prosecutor has an ethical obligation to protect the public’s best interest by ensuring justice is reached. It is also up to the prosecutor to press charges, bring evidence and prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Process

A helpful, simplified graph of criminal case processes is located here.

Reporting a Crime

The beginning of a criminal case starts with the reporting of a crime. Law enforcement officers then investigate and arrest an allegedly guilty party. When in police custody, whether arrested or brought in for questioning, you have the right to speak with an attorney. An attorney’s presence with you during questioning helps significantly. Even innocent people may say the wrong thing during the stress of a police interrogation. Following the interrogation, law enforcement creates a report and sends it to the appropriate government prosecutor.

Preliminary Processes and Arraignment

The prosecutor reads the police report to ascertain if the person arrested should be charged with a crime. A preliminary arraignment is then held within six hours after the arrest with the defendant, the judge, and the police. At preliminary arraignment, charges against the defendant are read and a copy of the criminal complaint is provided to the defendant. The defendant is also advised of his or her rights and notified of when the preliminary hearing will be set.

Following the preliminary arraignment, the judge holds a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed. Defense attorneys are sometime able to have cases dismissed at this point.

An arraignment is held next to officially present the accused’s attorney with the charges filed and any police reports on the case. At arraignment, the defendant must enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant has an attorney, then most often the attorney can represent the defendant at the arraignment. In that case, the defendant is excused from appearing and does not have to attend the arraignment. At arraignment, the Court will also advise the defendant of the various pre-trial motions, and their deadlines, that are available to the defendant. Bail may be set or detention required. The defendant’s attorney would argue for bail, if needed, at this point as well. A plea bargain may be discussed with the District Attorney to lessen charges and obtain a lighter sentencing during this time. Many criminal cases end with a plea bargain.

A trial will be set if no bargain is made. Trials by jury are held for offenses that are more serious and are available to the defendant when punishment can equal or exceed one year. Juries in criminal cases always consist of 12 citizens from the community. The defendant and his attorney participate in the process to select those jurors. Generally, a jury trial is more beneficial for criminal cases, but an attorney may recommend a bench trial if they believe a judge may be less swayed than a jury about news surrounding the crime. A jury must return a unanimous verdict of guilty or not guilty. If they do not return a unanimous verdict, the Judge will declare a mistrial and the case will likely be tried again.

Responsibility of the Prosecutor

The burden of proof rests upon the prosecutor of the case. It is the prosecution’s duty to prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense attorneys usually present evidence and witnesses to support the defense of the accused. However, they may choose not to present evidence if the prosecution’s evidence seems weak or unsubstantial.

Determining a Verdict

Following the trial, the jury determines a verdict. Usually, there must be a consensus to acquit or convict the defendant otherwise it could result in a mistrial. Following a guilty verdict is sentencing. Both the prosecution and defense must make the case for the sentence deserved and the judge determines the penalty.


Outcomes of criminal cases vary based upon criminal charges, evidence, proper procedures and the goals of the prosecutor and defense. An experienced, knowledgeable defense attorney may make the difference between a significant sentence and an acquittal.

If you are charged with an offense, consult and hire an attorney who concentrates in criminal defense and who is best qualified to ensure your rights are protected and that punishment, if any, is appropriate.

Attorney George Lepley at Lepley, Engelman, Yaw, and Wilk has been practicing criminal law almost exclusively for 44 years. He has defended clients in a dozen Capital cases (cases with a potential death penalty). No client has ever received a death verdict, except one case, which was then vacated on appeal. George Lepley has represented individuals with every type of criminal charge including thousands of DUI cases, criminal offense cases, and more than fifty homicide cases. If you are arrested for any criminal offense, do not make any statements until you have contacted George Lepley at Lepley, Engelman, Yaw, and Wilk.


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