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The Nature and Purpose of Criminal Law

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  • 0:01 Criminal Law
  • 0:45 Criminal Law and Civil Law
  • 1:59 Elements of Criminal Law
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the part of our justice system called criminal law. You will discover what defines it and makes it different from other forms of law. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Criminal Law

So, you want to fight crime? Well, there are three things you absolutely need to be a good crime fighter: boots, a cape, and a working knowledge of criminal law. Okay, you only need the last one. You see, in our modern justice system, we expect justice to come through the courts, not masked heroes. That means that you need to understand how the law and our legal system work, and there's no better place to start than with criminal law, the body of law that relates to crime. This defines our ideas about justice, rights, and even punishments and is the foundation for legal crime fighting.

Criminal Law and Civil Law

To understand criminal law, it's important to understand exactly what this covers as well as what it does not. Criminal law focuses exclusively on crime. It defines what a crime is, determines how we punish crimes, things like that. This is the opposite of civil law, which is the law of non-criminal wrongdoings. When we think of people suing each other, this is civil law.

Let's look at an example of each. A guy is breaking into a store and stealing money. He is breaking actual laws - destroying property, stealing, etc. That's a matter of criminal law. A girl is selling her car, and so she makes a contract with the buyer. When the buyer doesn't fulfill all the terms of their contract, he has wronged her. But he has not technically committed a crime. So, this is a matter of civil law. Criminal law is focused on punishing those who break the law; civil law is focused on resolving disputes and compensation or repayment.

Elements of Criminal Law

So, criminal law focuses on crimes, actions that specifically break the law. This means that the first step in fighting crime with criminal law is actually knowing what those laws are. The written code of rights, duties, illegal actions, and punishments is called substantive law. That's one-half of criminal law. What actions are crimes, and what are the punishments for those crimes? Our justice system puts a lot of thought and debate into defining the laws as a way to protect people. You can't be arrested just for anything; you have to have actually broken a law. This protects your rights and freedoms as an individual.

However, once someone does break the law, then lawyers need to know how to handle that. The actual process of charging and prosecuting a crime is called criminal procedure. That's the other half of criminal law. This begins with formally accusing, or charging, a person with a crime, and then proving that he or she committed the crime and assigning an appropriate punishment.

The most important part of this process is proving the crime. Our justice system was set up so that people would be protected against the power of the government, and that means that everybody is always assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. That's one of the most important principles of criminal law. You can't punish a person for committing a crime unless you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they actually did it.

This is a requirement called the burden of proof. This is important because it means that the defense attorney does not have to prove their client is innocent. The client is already assumed to be innocent. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to demonstrate beyond question that the suspect committed the crime.

So, how do you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone committed a crime? There are a lot of ways, but in general, there are two primary elements of criminal law that establish proof. The first is mens rea, which is the intent to commit a crime. The prosecutor must first prove that the suspect intended to commit the crime, as opposed to accidentally breaking the law. It should be noted that simply being neglectful can be counted as intent if the person should have been able to foresee that their neglect could result in a law being broken.

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