What Constitutes A Criminal Offense?

What is a criminal offense? Without question, there are many different kinds of crimes. After all, there are entire books, often called criminal or penal codes, which define all of the crimes in a particular jurisdiction as well as the punishments for those offenses. Ultimately, a crime is a type of wrongdoing that is different and distinguished from a civil wrong.

A civil wrong is different from a crime because it does not violate the moral standards of society to the same degree. A civil wrong may involve misbehavior by one person toward another (for example, a breach of contract claim or a customer who slips and falls on an icy sidewalk that was poorly maintained by a store owner). While these claims involve “wrongs,” they are not considered to be moral failures in the same way that criminal offenses are. Therefore, in its most broad definition, a criminal offense is a behavior that is prohibited by law and considered to violate the moral standards of society.

Broadly, criminal acts can be divided into several different categories. These include:

  • Personal Crimes: Personal crimes are those that, when committed, cause physical or mental harm to another person. These include forms of homicide, of course, but also include other violent crimes. Examples of personal crimes are various types of homicide, assault and battery, kidnapping, domestic violence (including spousal and child abuse), rape, sexual abuse, and other similar crimes.
  • Property Crimes: Property crimes are usually those that involve interference with the property of another person. Physical or mental harm to another person may be an indirect result of these crimes, but primarily, they result in depriving someone of the use and enjoyment of their property. Examples include theft crimes like burglary, robbery, and larceny, as well as automobile theft, and shoplifting.
  • Statutory Crimes: Statutory crimes are those crimes, in addition to the others mentioned in this article, that are forbidden by statute. The primary types of statutory crimes include:
  • Alcohol-related Crimes: These are crimes like driving under the influence, open container violations, being a minor in possession of alcohol, public intoxication, and other similar crimes.
  • Drug Crimes: Drug crimes include involvement in either creating or distributing illegal drugs as well as possessing and consuming those substances.
  • Traffic Offenses: “Traffic offenses” are those crimes that arise as a result of individuals driving vehicles on public roadways. This category of crime can overlap with other crimes – for example, a DUI would be both an alcohol-related crime and a traffic offense. Other traffic crimes include driving on a suspended or revoked license, hit-and-run accidents, driving without a license, reckless driving, and other similar crimes. Of course, if a traffic offense results in death, it can be charged as a more serious type of crime, like manslaughter or homicide, depending on the circumstances.
  • Financial and White Collar Crimes: These are crimes that often involve one person deceiving another for financial gain. They include various types of fraud and blackmail as well as tax evasion, cybercrime, embezzlement, money laundering, and other crimes of a similar nature.

Ultimately, though they comprise a variety of offenses, in essence, statutory crimes are those that are specifically prohibited by statute because society hopes to discourage individuals from committing them.

  • Inchoate Crimes: Inchoate crimes are those that were began but were not completed, or they are acts that assist another person in the commission of a crime. To commit an “inchoate crime,” one has to do more than intend or hope to commit a crime. To commit one of these crimes, an individual must take a “substantial step” towards completing the crime in order to be found guilty. Examples of inchoate crimes include aiding and abetting, attempt, and conspiracy crimes. Punishments for inchoate crimes differ depending on circumstances. In some circumstances, those who commit these crimes will be punished to the same degree as the underlying crime, though in other cases, the punishment might be less severe.

In addition to the various categories of criminal offenses, most criminal offenses are divided into three primary classifications – felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions:

  • Felonies: Felonies are the most serious classification of crimes and are typically punishable by incarceration of more than a year in prison. In some cases, felonies will even carry sentences of life in prison without parole or capital punishment. Most states have different felony classifications with increasing penalties for the most serious crimes. Each class of felony crimes has minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines established by law.
  • Misdemeanors: Misdemeanors are those crimes which do not rise to a felony level.  The maximum sentence for these crimes is one year or less in jail. The distinction between misdemeanors and felonies typically depends upon the severity of the crime.
  • Infractions: Infractions are those crimes that usually do not include jail time as a potential sentence. Infractions are often violations of local laws or ordinances like speed limits, improperly disposing of trash, operating a business without a proper license, and other similar infractions. Infractions are often punishable by fines, which in some cases can be paid without even going to court.

Though there are a wide variety of crimes and many classifications, all crimes share one thing in common: the punishments are determined by law, and we leave it to society to bring the criminals to justice. When a criminal offense is committed, a prosecutor employed by the government (either a district attorney, a county attorney, or a federal district attorney, for example) charges and prosecutes the alleged offender. Criminal defendants may be incarcerated, fined, or both as a result of their crimes, and these penalties are assigned as a punishment for those crimes.

In contrast to a criminal offense, when a civil wrong is committed, a lawsuit is most often brought by one party against another through a privately hired attorney. There is no incarceration for civil crimes, and “punishments” often take the form of fines, specific performance, or some other form of compensation, instead. Though a civil defendant may certainly feel as if he or she is being punished when a case is decided against their interest, the ultimate result is still very different from a criminal prosecution.

If you have been charged with a crime or if you are the victim of a crime, your first step should be to consult with an attorney who can give you the legal advice and counsel you need to determine your next steps forward. Call 303 Legal, P.C., to schedule an appointment or contact us online. We’re here to help!