Understanding Criminal Law

Attorneys specializing in criminal law are experts in the violations of local, state, and federal laws and their respective punishments. They advise, defend, and negotiate for clients facing misdemeanor and/or felony charges brought forth by prosecutors of the district attorney’s office. Attorneys who practice in the area of criminal law also represent clients for crimes that fall within local, state, and federal jurisdictions. If you are wondering what to look for in a criminal defense lawyer, please refer to our FAQs areas of criminal law include:

DUI & DWI (Driving Under the Influence or Driving While Intoxicated)

Though the details of the laws and punishments differ from state to state, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal in all 50 states. The national blood alcohol level required for a DUI charge is .08, but some states require only .01. For a person to be convicted of a DUI, the prosecutor must prove that the violator was under the influence and operating a vehicle.

  1. Driving/Operating a Motor Vehicle

    To be convicted of a DUI charge, the District Attorney must prove the person charged was operating a vehicle. Most people believe they must be driving a car to be charged or convicted of DUI. However, the law includes the operation of any vehicle that could endanger the driver, passengers, or others. This includes but is not limited to: cars, trucks, golf carts, motorcycles, mopeds, go-carts, or even transport animals, like horses, ponies, or donkeys.

  2. Under the Influence or While Intoxicated

    To be found guilty of DUI/DWI, the prosecutor must prove the driver experienced impaired judgment due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or that the driver’s blood alcohol level was above the legal limit. The definition of “impairment” differs from state to state, so it is always a good idea for drivers to find out the specific laws in their state.

    One does not have to feel affected by the drugs or alcohol consumed to be charged with and convicted of DUI. For example, if a driver has been drinking and is stopped by authorities who administer a breathalyzer test, he or she can still be charged if the BAC is .08 or above, regardless of whether or not the driver is affected by the alcohol consumed.

Traffic Ticket

cop giving male driver traffic ticket

Most drivers will get a traffic ticket at some point during their lives. Choosing how to handle the ticket is up to the driver. There are two options:

  1. Pay the Ticket: Choosing to pay a traffic ticket is the same as a guilty plea. Paying the traffic citation is the easiest way to handle a ticket. Follow the instructions on the citation. Usually, drivers can pay online, mail the payment, or present the payment at the listed county office. Paying a ticket could lead to license suspension, higher insurance rates, traffic school/courses, and points added to the license (in some states).
  2. Fight the Ticket: Fighting the ticket will mean appearing in court. If a driver plans to contest the citation, he or she should notify the correct court office before the due date. From there, the driver can represent himself or hire a lawyer who fights traffic violations. Many people wonder what happens at a court hearing for a traffic violation.Depending upon the situation, a judge may choose to dismiss all of the charges, some of the charges, or none of the charges. Fighting the ticket will cost time and money with no guarantee that any of the charges will be dismissed or reduced.
  3. Failure to show up or pay tickets by the date listed on the citation will result in more charges and fees, loss of driving privileges, and, in some cases, the driver’s arrest.

Criminal Federal

Criminal prosecutions not handled by the state are federal, or national, cases. Federal charges stem from violation of federal laws, crimes that involve a national agency, or crimes committed across state lines. Rather than local law enforcement, federal agencies file federal charges.

These agencies include:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • The National Security Agency (NSA)
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)
  • The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Secret Service

Common federal crimes include:

  • Mail fraud
  • Kidnapping
  • Bank robbery
  • Credit card/identity theft
  • Hate crimes
  • Tax evasion
  • Counterfeiting
  • Illegal wiretapping
  • drug -related federal crimes

Under the direction of the U.S. Attorney General, federal prosecutors are responsible for bringing federal charges in each state, which is divided into districts.

Drug Crime

Drug charges stem from the possession, use, abuse, sell, manufacture, and trafficking of recreational/street or prescription drugs. Any activity involving recreational street drugs is illegal in the United States. Crimes involving prescription drugs violate the Controlled Substances law. The severity of drug crimes depends upon the drug’s schedule, the amount, and the intent to sell, distribute or manufacture. The punishment also depends upon whether the crime is a state or federal issue.

  • Drug Schedule/Classification

    According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, drug scheduling is a means of labeling drugs based upon their danger, likelihood for abuse, and likelihood of addiction or dependency. The schedule of drugs ranges from I-V, most dangerous/addictive to least dangerous/addictive. For example, heroin is a schedule I drug, while an over-the-counter antacid is a Schedule V drug.

  • Amount

    The amount of drugs a person possesses is considered either simple possession or possession with intent. These amounts vary from state to state. In general, simple possession is a small amount intended for personal use, while possession with intent is an amount large enough to sell.

  • Sell or Manufacture

    In the United States, it is illegal to sell or make illegal drugs or drugs that fall under the Controlled Substances Law. The severity of of the sell or manufacture of drugs depends upon the amount and the schedule of the drug(s) involved.

  • State v. Federal Drug Crimes

    Whether a crime falls under state or federal jurisdiction depends upon where the crime was committed and the arresting agency. For a drug charge to be federal, the crime has to be committed across state lines or on federal property. A drug charge is also considered federal if the arresting officer works for the federal government (FBI or ATF agent). On the other hand, a county sheriff’s deputy makes a drug arrest, the perpetrator will be held in county jail and prosecuted in a county court.

    Though some states have legalized the use of prescription or recreational marijuana, federal law prohibits the use of marijuana. Therefore, it is important to be familiar with federal possession laws, as well as the laws about marijuana possession in your individual state.

Sex Crime

A sex crime is a criminal act involving sex or any crime that is sexual in nature. Sex crimes can be prosecuted at the state or federal level and can be both violent and nonviolent, criminal and misdemeanor. Punishments for sex offenders vary from state to state. The penalties also depend upon the nature of the crime and the ages of the victims. The following is a list of common sex crimes:

  • Rape
  • Statutory Rape
  • Marital Rape
  • Date Rape
  • Sexual Battery
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Sexual Misconduct
  • Sex Trafficking
  • Child Molestation
  • Incest
  • Prostitution
  • Public Lewdness

Though the penalties vary from state to state, most of those convicted of sex crimes must register as a sex offender in their state.

White Collar Crime

A white collar crime refers to illegal activities committed by business or government officials for financial or economic gain. The crimes are nonviolent but still cause major damage for victims. According to the FBI, white collar crimes include: corporate fraud, money laundering, and securities and commodities fraud. Other examples are embezzlement, health care fraud, mortgage fraud, fraud against the government, mass marketing fraud, and elections fraud. Countless people fall victim to white collar crimes each year. With advancements in technology, these crimes are more common than ever and become more and more difficult to detect.

white collar crime includes money laundering

Corporate Fraud

Corporate Fraud is a company’s effort to gain economic advantage through dishonest or illegal actions. Corporate fraud impacts the company’s employees, other invested parties, and even the economy.

Money Laundering

Money laundering is the act of making funds from criminal activities appear to have come through legal means. Money laundering often involves foreign banks or legitimate businesses.

Securities and Commodities Fraud

Securities Fraud is the illegal practice of leading investors to make purchases based upon faulty information. This typically involves the stock market and results in financial losses.

Punishment for white collar crimes ranges from prison terms and fines to community service and probation. Because these crimes are difficult to detect, the FBI coordinates with other agencies to thwart white collar crimes.

Assault & Battery

Assault & Battery refers to the intentional harming of one person against another or a threat issued by one person to harm another. Assault charges range from simple to aggravated, depending upon the severity of the situation. These charges can result from one person threatening to harm another or from two or more individuals who inflict harm upon each other. In most states, the only requirement for an assault charge to be filed is the intention to cause violence and the fear of violence. In other words, the victim has only to fear bodily harm and the assaulter has to intend to do harm, even if the victim is not harmed physically.

Simple Assault: A simple assault is a misdemeanor that carries a lighter punishment than aggravated assault. Simple assaults do not result in extreme bodily harm or involve the use of a weapon. Simple assaults also lack the intention of committing more serious crimes.

Aggravated Assault: An aggravated assault is a more serious crime that results in physical harm. The perpetrator often uses a weapon or intends to carry out a more serious crime, like murder or rape. Victims of assault usually suffer more serious injuries.


A misdemeanor is a less serious crime than a felony and does not typically result in lengthy sentences. Those who commit misdemeanors usually face punishments of fines, restitution, probation, or short jail sentences.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence occurs within the home and usually involves the simple or aggravated assault of a spouse or partner. If you are a victim of domestic assault and feel you are in immediate danger, dial 9-1-1. If you need legal help concerning domestic assault, consult a lawyer who handles domestic violence defense. An attorney specializing in domestic violence defense can help you get services that will ensure your safety and take legal actions, such as restraining orders against a violent partner.


crime scene investigation homicide

Murder, also called homicide, occurs when one person takes the life of another. Murder can be premeditated or unplanned. A person can also be charged with murder if the death was an accident.

  • First Degree Murder:

    To convict a person of first degree murder, prosecutors must prove that the offender intended to kill the victim, planned out the crime, and then carried out those plans and intentions. First degree murder is the most serious type of murder charge and carries hefty penalties, including life in prison, exclusion from parole or the death penalty.

  • Second Degree Murder:

    Second degree murders are often referred to as “crimes of passion”. In other words, the offender may have intended to kill the victim as he or she was committing the crime but did not actually plan to commit the murder ahead of time. Second degree murder is punishable with lengthy prison sentences.

  • Manslaughter:

    Manslaughter is the unintentional, unplanned killing of another person. It is broken into two major categories: voluntary or involuntary

    • Voluntary Manslaughter

      Manslaughter lacks premeditation and is usually committed when the offender is provoked by anger, fear, or desperation. A voluntary manslaughter charge can also occur when the offender intends to commit a less serious crime, like battery, but accidentally kills the victim. Often committed in the “heat of the moment”, voluntary manslaughter convictions usually involve jail time but are considered less serious than first or second degree murder.

    • Involuntary Manslaughter

      Offenders convicted of involuntary manslaughter have unintentionally killed another person. While manslaughter usually carries lighter sentences than first or second degree murder, it is still a serious crime and punishable with prison time. Though the commission of manslaughter does not involve intent or premeditation, the actions of the offender, though unintentional, still result in the unlawful death of another human being. For example, if a driver is texting, takes his eyes off the road, and crashes into another car, which results in the death of the other driver, the situation could result in a manslaughter charge.

Justifiable Homicide

Justifiable homicide is the killing of another person in order to protect oneself or others. Often called “self-defense killings”, the defense must prove the victim posed an imminent threat and the offender acted reasonably in order to protect himself or others.


Parole is the release of a prisoner before he or she completes his sentence, based on good behavior. To receive parole, a prisoner must appear before a parole board. Members of the parole board will interview the prisoner and decide whether he or she should be released, based upon a mental evaluation, the crime committed, time served, behavior while in prison, and ability to support him or herself upon release. If the prisoner is granted parole, he or she must abide by certain conditions, such as getting a job, refraining from illegal activities, abstaining from the use of drugs or alcohol, or other conditions. Upon release, prisoners are assigned a parole officer, who will supervise their activities and behaviors on a regular basis.


Probation is a legal term referring to the release of an offender under the supervision of the court for a period of time determined by a judge. Depending upon the severity of the crime, probation can be used to punish offenders, rather than serving time in jail. If granted probation, the offender is assigned a probation officer, who monitors the offender during that time. If the offender obeys by the terms of his or her probation, he or she can avoid harsher punishments for offenses. However, if the offender violates the terms of his or her probation, the offender could be arrested or be ordered back to court.


Simply put, theft is the taking of property from another individual without the person’s consent. Theft can be prosecuted at the federal, state, and local level. The seriousness of the charges and punishment can vary from state to state, but typically, if the stolen property is valued at less than $1,000, the crime is considered a misdemeanor. Any stolen property worth more than $1,000 is considered a felony. The punishment for theft varies, depending upon what was taken and how the circumstances surrounding the theft. For example, the theft becomes a robbery if the offender holds a cashier at gunpoint and takes the money from the register.

Frequently Asked Questions for Criminal Law

If you have been charged with a crime, it is always a good idea to hire a criminal defense lawyer. You do have the right to represent yourself in court, but unless you have a degree in law, arguing your own case will be difficult. A criminal defense lawyer is an expert in criminal law. He or she will be able to provide legal defense that could prevent you from serving time in jail or paying hefty fines.
At your initial court appearance, you will go before a judge, who will review your case. If you have an attorney or public defender already, you will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you do not have an attorney, the court can appoint a public defender to handle your case. After the plea is entered, the judge will hear from the prosecution and the defense. Then, he or she will make preliminary decisions, such as whether or not to issue bail or bond. Depending upon the crime, the judge will set a date for further court appearances or choose to recommend that the charges be bound over to a grand jury, a panel that will determine whether the charges are serious enough to be tried in criminal court. Procedures vary from state to state and district to district.
If you have been charged with a crime, it is in your best interest to hire a lawyer who specializes in criminal defense. In other words, the attorney should spend most of his or her time defending clients charged with crimes. Make a list of a few possible attorneys and consult with them. Consider cost, experience, and which attorney you feel most comfortable with. If you are unable to afford a private attorney, it is a good idea to consult with a public defender.