Written by Avvo Staff | Sep 30, 2015

What is criminal defense?

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If you're facing charges, it's important to understand what to expect. By learning some of the basics of criminal defense, you'll give yourself the best possible chance of a desirable outcome.

Civil vs. criminal law

There are two types of laws in the United States, civil and criminal. In both cases, there is a plaintiff who initiates the complaint, and a defendant who defends against the complaint. Some complaints may have both criminal and civil components.

In a civil case, the plaintiff, or wronged party, is obligated to show evidence demonstrating that, more likely than not, there was a violation of civil law. While some civil cases are decided by a jury, most are decided by a judge.

Potential penalties in a civil case may include monetary damages or orders from the court to do or stop doing something.

In a criminal case, the plaintiff is the government, because crimes are viewed as offenses against the state. The defendant is the person accused of committing the crime.

In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a significantly higher burden of proof than in civil cases. Criminal cases are often decided by juries, and penalties may include monetary damages or time in jail.

What are some common criminal defense strategies?

In a criminal case, the defendant is guaranteed access to a public defender if they cannot afford one, but a civil defendant must either pay for their own defense attorney or represent themselves.

A criminal defense attorney will decide on the best approach based on the specifics of the case. Common criminal defense strategies include:

  • Arguing that the facts presented by the prosecution are untrue or fail to rise to the burden of proof
  • Presenting an alibi which demonstrates the defendant could not have committed the crime because of where they were or what they were doing at the time it was committed
  • Arguing that police coerced the defendant into committing the criminal act
  • Arguing that the prosecution did not bring charges within the statute of limitations, or amount of time allowed by law, so the charges must be dropped

Federal vs. state crimes

For a case to be tried in federal court, it must involve the constitution or a law passed by congress. It must also fall within a relatively narrow jurisdiction, like immigration or copyright lawsuits.

Most cases involving private citizens are tried in state court, since state courts have broader jurisdiction. In many cases, both state and federal laws have been violated, so the plaintiff may choose whether to bring the case before a state or federal court.

Felony vs. misdemeanor crimes

While criminal offenses vary greatly in terms of severity, felony crimes are more serious than misdemeanors. In general, misdemeanors carry potential penalties of monetary fines and/or no more than 1 year in county jail, while the penalty for a felony may be a year or longer in state or federal prison. Non-violent crimes like shoplifting may be prosecuted as misdemeanors, while violent crimes like robbery or arson are felonies.

If you're facing civil or criminal charges, hiring a skilled criminal defense attorney is the best way to ensure you'll be well represented in court. Don't be afraid to ask questions and make sure you understand your rights throughout the criminal defense process.

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