Written by attorney William Lawrence Summers

Ohio Criminal Law Basics

Criminal law is one of the oldest of the major branches of law. It spells out rules of conduct for society to follow and provides for penalties when those rules are broken. The law also protects by shielding citizens from wrongful prosecutions and mistakes made by law enforcement officials, affording certain constitutional rights if an individual is accused of committing a crime. What Constitutes an Offense? In Ohio, all crimes must be defined by state statute or local ordinance. Statutes and ordinances (commonly referred to as laws) must also provide penalties for committing crimes. There are varying degrees of criminal offenses, ranging from jaywalking to premeditated murder. In Ohio and most other jurisdictions, two things are required for an act or omission to qualify as a criminal offense. First, the law must prohibit the unlawful act or conduct, or there must be a failure to perform some duty required by the law. (This is called actus reus, or guilty act.) Second, at the time of the unlawful act, conduct, or omission, the person committing the offense must have a certain guilty state of mind, or culpable mental state (in Latin, mens rea). Depending on the specific crime with which an offender is charged, it must be shown that he or she: o acted in a reckless manner; or o acted with purpose or knowledge; or o acted with criminal negligence. With few exceptions, for an act or omission to be considered a crime, at least one of these culpable mental states must be present. For example, the crime of murder is defined as purposely causing the death of another person. Thus, causing someone's death accidentally is not murder (though it may be negligent homicide) because the required guilty state of mind for the crime of murder is not present. Someone might actually plan to steal and therefore have a guilty mind. But that person has not committed a crime until he or she actually takes or attempts to take something while having a guilty mind. The exceptions to requiring a culpable mental state generally have to do with regulatory offenses dealing with public health and safety. Selling impure food, for example, is a violation of the pure food and drug laws even if the seller did not know the food was tainted. Such crimes are commonly known as strict liability offenses. Kinds of Crimes There are two major classifications of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors. The word felony comes from the Latin word felonia, meaning treason or treachery. Misdemeanor combines "mis" for "wrong" or "bad," and "demeanor" from the Middle English "demenure," meaning to govern oneself or behave. Both felonies and misdemeanors are further classified according to the comparative seriousness of the offense, with crimes of the first degree generally representing the most serious. Some crimes are simply defined as felonies or misdemeanors without being class-ified by degree. Felonies are the most serious crimes and, in Ohio, they carry a potential penalty of from six months or more in a state prison to a penalty of death for aggravated murder. Punishment for felons (persons committing felonies) may include imprisonment, community sanctions and various financial penalties. The most serious felony is aggravated murder, followed by murder. Both are done purposely, but aggravated murder is committed "with prior calculation and design." Aggravated murder also can be a purposeful killing that is committed while the perpetrator is also commit-ting a first- or second-degree felony such as kidnapping, rape and robbery. The murder offenses are followed in descending level of seriousness by felonies of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth degrees. Under certain circumstances, felony offenders can serve time in local jails or community-based correctional facilities; however, most violent or repeat offenders are housed in state prisons. Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies. They range from speeding and littering to drunken driving and simple assault (with minimal harm). In Ohio, the penalty for a misdemeanor can range from payment of court costs to no more than six months in jail and/or a fine of $1,000 per offense. In addition, the penalty may include community control sanctions such as probation or community service. In fact, the penalty for most misdemean-ants (persons committing misdemeanors) involves community and financial sanctions rather than jail time. Minor misdemeanors are the least serious offenses and, in Ohio, may be punished only by a fine of $150 or less, but no jail time. Crimes in the Ohio Criminal Code The Ohio Revised Code lists all crimes that apply in Ohio. Most of these appear in Title 29, the Ohio Criminal Code, which lists most of the serious offenses according to state law. Subjects covered include: o homicide, assault and menacing threats; o kidnapping, abduction, false imprisonment, extortion and coercion; o patient abuse and neglect; o rape and other sexual assaults, prostitution, obscenity and disseminating matter harmful to juveniles; o arson and other property damage offenses; o robbery, burglary, breaking and entering, safecracking and trespassing; o theft, bad check and credit card offenses, forgery, fraud and other theft offenses; o gambling; o inciting violence; o riot, disorderly conduct and false alarms; o certain aspects of abortion, nonsupport, endangering children and domestic violence; o bribery, perjury, resisting arrest, harboring criminals, escape, graft, conflict of interest, dereliction of public duty and violation of civil rights; o conspiracy, attempt and complicity; o weapons and explosives control; o corrupt activity (racketeering); and o drug offenses including possession, sale, manufacture and cultivation.

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