Legal Encyclopedia Table of Contents
Understanding Search and Seizure Law
Search Warrants: What They Are and When They’re Necessary
Police Questioning: When Miranda Warnings Are Required
Bail: Getting Out of Jail After an Arrest
Defendants’ Incentives for Accepting Plea Bargains
How Defendants’ Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime
Accomplices, Accessories, Aiders, and Abettors
Defenses to Criminal Charges
Sentencing Alternatives: Prison, Probation, Fines, and Community Service
UNDERSTANDING SEARCH AND SEIZURE LAW
Learn when the government can invade your privacy to hunt for evidence of a crime.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution places limits on the power of the police to make arrests, search people and their property, and seize objects and contraband (such as illegal drugs or weapons). These limits are the bedrock of search and seizure law. This article covers the basic issues that you should know, beginning with an overview of the Fourth Amendment itself.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment are all about privacy. To honor this freedom, the Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable” searches and seizures by state or federal law enforcement authorities.
The flip side is that the Fourth Amendment does permit searches and seizures that are considered reasonable. In practice, this means that the police may override your privacy concerns and conduct a search of your home, barn, car, boat, office, personal or business documents, bank account records, trash barrel, or whatever, if: the police have probable cause to believe they can find evidence that you committed a crime, and a judge issues a search warrant, or the particular circumstances justify the search without a warrant first being issued.
When the Fourth Amendment Doesn’t Protect You
The Fourth Amendment applies to a search only if a person has a “legitimate expectation of privacy” in the place or thing searched. If not, the Fourth Amendment offers no protection because there are, by definition, no privacy issues.
Courts use a two-part test (fashioned by the U.S. Supreme Court) to determine whether, at the time of the search, a defendant had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the place or things searched:
Did the person actually expect some degree of privacy?
Is the person’s expectation objectively reasonable — that is, one that society is willing to recognize?
For example, a person who uses a public restroom expects not to be spied upon (the person has an expectation of privacy) and most people — including judges and juries — would consider that expectation to be reasonable (there is an objective expectation of privacy as well). Therefore, the installation of a hidden video camera by the police in a public restroom will be considered a “search” and would be subject to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of reasonableness.
On the other hand, when the police look for and find a weapon on the front seat of a car, it is not considered a search under the Fourth Amendment because it is very unlikely that the person would think that the front seat of the car is a private place (an expectation of privacy is unlikely), and even if the person did, society is not willing to extend the protections of privacy to that particular location (no objective expectation of privacy).
A good example of how this works comes from a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court held that a bus passenger had a legitimate expectation of privacy in an opaque carry-on bag positioned in a luggage rack above the passenger’s head, and that the physical probing by the police of the bag’s exterior for evidence of contraband constituted a search subject to Fourth Amendment limitations. Bond v. U.S., No. 98-9349 (April 17, 2000).
Restrictions on Private Security Personnel
Private security personnel currently outnumber police officers in the United States by three to one. As a result, whether you’re shopping in a supermarket or a pharmacy, working in an office building, or visiting a friend in a housing project, you may be more likely to be confronted by a security guard than by a police officer. At the present time, the Fourth Amendment does not apply to searches carried out by non-governmental employees like private security guards.
For example, assume that a shopping mall security guard acting on a pure hunch searches a teenager’s backpack. Inside the backpack the guard finds a baggie containing an illegal drug. The guard can detain the teenager, call the police, and turn the drug over to a police officer. The drug is admissible in evidence, because the search was conducted by a private security guard. As private security guards increasingly exercise traditional police functions, courts may one day apply Fourth Amendment guidelines to their conduct.
What Happens When A Search Violates the Fourth Amendment?
The exclusionary rule. If, upon review, a court finds that an unreasonable search occurred, any evidence seized as a result of the search cannot be used as direct evidence against the defendant in a criminal prosecution, state or federal. This rule, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961, has come to be known as the “exclusionary rule.”
To this day, many commentators criticize the exclusionary rule on the ground that it unfairly “lets the criminal go free because the constable has erred.” But the rule’s supporters argue that excluding illegally seized evidence is necessary to deter police from conducting illegal searches. According to this deterrence argument, the police won’t conduct improper searches if the resulting evidence can’t be used to convict the defendant.
Fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine
In addition to being excluded as evidence against the defendant, evidence resulting from an illegal search may not be used to discover other evidence, under a legal rule colorfully known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. The “tree” is the evidence that the police illegally seize in the first place; the “fruit” is the second-generation product of the illegally seized evidence. Both tree and fruit are inadmissible at trial.
Officer Wiley arrests Hy Lowe for selling phony telephone cards. A judge rules that Officer Wiley illegally entered Lowe’s home and improperly seized a map showing the location where Lowe hid the phone cards. Officer Wiley then found the phone cards in that location. Because Officer Wiley obtained the map through an illegal search, the phone cards are the fruit of that unlawful search and are therefore inadmissible into evidence. Some defendants believe that if they can show that a search was illegal, the case must be dismissed. Not true. If a prosecutor has enough other evidence to prove the defendant guilty, the case can continue. Also, the illegally-seized evidence can be:
considered by a judge when deciding on an appropriate sentence following conviction
admitted in civil cases and deportation cases, and in some circumstances, be used by a prosecutor to impeach (attack the credibility of) a witness who testifies in the trial.
To learn more about search and seizure law, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by Paul Bergman (Nolo).
© 2009 Nolo
Search Warrants: What They Are and When They Are Necessary
Learn when police officers must obtain a warrant before they search your home or other property.
A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that authorizes police officers to search for specific objects or materials at a definite location at a specified time. For example, a warrant may authorize the search of “the premises at 11359 Happy Glade Avenue between the hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.” and direct the police to search for and seize “cash, betting slips, record books, and every other means used in connection with placing bets on horses.”
How Police Obtain Search Warrants
Police officers obtain search warrants by convincing a judge or magistrate that they have “probable cause” to believe that criminal activity is occurring at the place to be searched or that evidence of a crime may be found there. Usually, the police provide the judge or magistrate with information in the form of written statements under oath, called “affidavits,” which report either their own observations, or those of private citizens or police undercover informants. If the magistrate believes that the affidavit establishes probable cause to conduct a search, he or she will issue a warrant.
The suspect, who may be connected with the place to be searched, is not present when the warrant is issued and therefore cannot contest the issue of probable cause at that time. However, the suspect can later challenge the validity of the warrant before trial.
What Police Can Search for and Seize Under a Warrant
The police can search only the place described in a warrant and usually can seize only the property that the warrant describes. The police cannot search a house if the warrant specifies the backyard, nor can they search for weapons if the warrant specifies marijuana plants. However, this does not mean that police officers can seize only those items listed in the warrant. If, in the course of their search, police officers come across contraband or evidence of a crime that is not listed in the warrant, they can lawfully seize the unlisted items.
If the warrant specifies a certain person to be searched, the police can search only that person, unless they have independent probable cause to search other persons who happen to be present at the scene of a search. If an officer merely has a reasonable suspicion that an onlooker is engaged in criminal activity, the officer can only question the onlooker and, if necessary for the officer’s safety, conduct a frisk for weapons (but not do a full search).
When Search Warrants Aren’t Required
Most searches occur without warrants being issued. Over the years, the courts have defined a number of situations in which a search warrant is not necessary, either because the search is per se reasonable under the circumstances or because, due to a lack of a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply at all.
If the person in control of the premises freely and voluntarily agrees to the search, the search is valid and whatever the officers find is admissible in evidence. Police officers do not have to warn people that they have a right to refuse consent to a search. If a police officer wrangles a consent through trickery or coercion, the consent does not validate the search.
Many disputes about consent have to do with who has the right to consent. If there are two or more separate tenants in one dwelling, courts often rule that one tenant has no power to consent to a search of the areas exclusively controlled by the other tenants (for instance, their separate bedrooms). Similarly, a landlord lacks authority to consent to a search of leased premises. The same is true for hotel operators.
On the other hand, an employer can validly consent to a search of company premises, which extends to an employee’s work area but not to clearly private areas such as an employee’s clothes locker. A tricky twist is that the consent in these types of cases will be considered valid if the police reasonably believe that the consenting person has the authority to consent, even if it turns out they don’t.
The Plain View Doctrine
Police officers do not need a warrant to search and seize contraband or evidence that is “in plain view” if the officer has a right to be where the evidence or contraband is first spotted. For instance, the police may search for and seize marijuana growing outdoors if they first spot the marijuana from an airplane or helicopter, since the marijuana is deemed to be in plain view. Similarly, if an officer walks by a car and spots evidence or contraband through the car window, a search may be conducted without a warrant. The same rule would apply if an officer is in your home for other valid reasons and spots drugs on a table or cabinet.
Search Made in Connection With an Arrest
Police officers do not need a warrant to make a search “incident to an arrest.” After an arrest, police officers have the right to protect themselves by searching for weapons and to protect the legal case against the suspect by searching for evidence that the suspect might try to destroy.
Police may sometimes also make what’s known as a “protective sweep” following an arrest if they have a reasonable belief that a dangerous accomplice might be hiding inside a residence. When making a protective sweep, police officers can walk through a residence and make a “cursory visual inspection” of places where an accomplice might be hiding. For example, police officers could look under beds and inside closets. If a sweep is lawful, the police can lawfully seize contraband or evidence of crime that is in plain view during the sweep.
The Emergency Exception
As a general rule, the police are authorized to make a warrantless search when the time it would take to get a warrant would jeopardize public safety or lead to the loss of important evidence. Here are some situations in which most judges would uphold a warrantless search:
An officer checks an injured motorist for possible injuries following a collision and finds illegal drugs.
Following a street drug arrest, an officer enters the house after the suspect shouts into the house, “Eddie, quick, flush it!” The officer arrests Eddie and seizes the stash.
A police officer on routine patrol hears shouts and screams coming from a residence, rushes in, and arrests a suspect for spousal abuse. A police officer “in hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect continues the chase into the suspect’s dwelling in order to make the arrest. In these types of emergency situations, an officer’s duty to protect people and preserve evidence outweighs the warrant requirement.
Allowing Police to Make a Warrantless Search
A search warrant is not always legally necessary, and a police officer may have information of which a person is unaware that allows the officer to make a warrantless entry. If an officer announces an intention to enter a home or building without a warrant, a person should not risk injury or a separate charge of “interfering with a police officer.” Rather, the person should stand aside, let the officer proceed and allow a court to decide later whether the officer’s actions were proper. At the same time, the person should make it clear that he or she does not consent to the search.
Searches of Cars and Their Occupants
Cars may be searched without a warrant whenever the car has been validly stopped and the police have probable cause to believe the car contains contraband or evidence. If the police have probable cause to search the car, all compartments and packages that may contain the evidence or contraband being searched for are fair game.
While a police officer cannot search a car simply because the car was stopped for a traffic infraction, the police can order the driver and any passengers out of the car for safety considerations, even though there is no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing other than the traffic infraction. The police also can “frisk” the occupants for weapons if the officers have a “reasonable suspicion” that the occupants are involved in criminal activity and are reasonably concerned for their safety.
For more information on the legallity of various police searches and seizures, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by Paul Bergman (Nolo).
© 2009 Nolo
POLICE QUESTIONING: WHEN MIRANDA WARNINGS ARE REQUIRED
What really happens if the police fail to read a suspect his rights.
Many people believe that if they are arrested and not “read their rights,” they can escape punishment. Not true. But if the police fail to read a suspect his or her rights, the prosecutor can’t use anything the suspect says as evidence against the suspect at trial.
Popularly known as the Miranda warning (ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona), a defendant’s rights consist of the familiar litany invoked by TV police immediately upon arresting a suspect:
You have the right to remain silent.
If you do say anything, what you say can be used against you in a court of law.
You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during any questioning.
If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you if you so desire.
If you choose to talk to the police officer, you have the right to stop the interview at any time. (This part of the warning is usually omitted from the screenplay.)
When the Miranda Warning Is Required
It doesn’t matter whether an interrogation occurs in a jail, at the scene of a crime, on a busy downtown street, or the middle of an open field: If a person is in custody (deprived of his or her freedom of action in any significant way), the police must give a Miranda warning if they want to question the suspect and use the suspect’s answers as evidence at trial.
If a person is not in police custody, however, no Miranda warning is required and anything the person says can be used at trial if the person is later charged with a crime. This exception most often comes up when the police stop someone on the street to question him or her about a recent crime or the person blurts out a confession before the police have an opportunity to deliver the warning.
People are often surprised to learn that if a person hasn’t yet been arrested, the police may question the person and use the answers in court without first providing the Miranda warning.
Responding to Questions Before an Arrest
Does a person have to respond to police questions if he or she hasn’t been arrested? Generally, no. A police officer generally cannot arrest a person simply for failure to respond to questions.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the “right of silence.” This means that unless a police officer has “probable cause” to make an arrest or a “reasonable suspicion” to conduct a “stop and frisk,” a person approached by the police officer has the legal right to refuse to answer questions. Indeed, a person who has reason to believe that he or she is a potential suspect should politely decline to answer questions, at least until after consulting an attorney. However, there are several exceptions to this rule.
Loitering. The “right to silence” rule may not hold true if the officer suspects the person of loitering. Laws in effect in many states generally define loitering as “wandering about from place to place without apparent business, such that the person poses a threat to public safety.” Under these laws, if a police officer sees a person loitering, the officer can demand identification and an explanation of the person’s activities. If the person fails to comply, the officer can arrest the person for loitering.
Traffic stops. Another situation where answers to police questions are usually required is when drivers are stopped for suspected traffic violations. An officer has the right to demand personal identification — usually a driver’s license and the vehicle registration. A driver’s refusal to supply the information elevates the situation to a more serious offense, for which the driver usually can be arrested. The simple refusal to answer questions is not a crime, but the refusal to supply identification, combined with the suspected commission of a traffic offense, is.
Stop and Frisk Searches
A “stop and frisk” is when a police officer stops a person to question them and, for self-protection only, carries out a limited pat-down search for weapons (a “frisk”). A police officer may stop and frisk a person if the officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is engaged in criminal activity. This is an easier test for a police officer to meet than the “probable cause” that is required to make an arrest. In one recent U.S. Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that running away from the police is enough of a reason for the police to stop and frisk the defendant.
When frisking a person for weapons, police may feel a suspicious package that the officer knows is commonly used to carry illegal drugs or some other illegal substance. This suspicion may turn into sufficient cause for a more intensive search of the person’s clothing. And, if a search produces an illegal substance, it may result in an arrest.
The almost-universal advice of defense attorneys is to keep the old mouth tightly shut when being questioned after an arrest, at least until after consulting an attorney. Suspects all too frequently unwittingly reveal information that can later be used as evidence of their guilt.
Consequences of Failure to Provide Miranda Warning
Without a Miranda warning, nothing a person says in response to a custodial questioning can be used as evidence against the person at his or her trial. In addition, under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” rule, if the police find evidence as a result of an interrogation that violates the Miranda rule, that evidence is also inadmissible at trial.
For example, if a suspect tells the police where a weapon is hidden and it turns out that the suspect provided this information in response to improper questioning, the police will not be able to use the weapon as evidence — unless the police can prove that they would have found the weapon without the suspect’s statements.
When Police Come Down Too Hard
Information that is voluntarily disclosed to a police officer (after the person has been properly warned) is generally admissible at trial. The key word is “voluntary.” Police officers are not allowed to use physical force or psychological coercion to get a suspect to talk to them. In addition, any evidence that the police obtain as the result of a coerced statement is equally inadmissible.
To learn more about Miranda, and to get answers to your questions about every part of a criminal case, read The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman-Barrett (Nolo).
© 2009 Nolo
BAIL: GETTING OUT OF JAIL AFTER AN ARREST
Everything you need to know about bail: what it is, how it’s set, and how to pay it.
A person’s first thought upon landing in jail is often how to get out — and fast. The usual way to do this is to “post bail.” Bail is cash or a cash equivalent that an arrested person gives to a court to ensure that he or she will appear in court when ordered to do so. If the defendant appears in court at the proper time, the court refunds the bail. But if the defendant doesn’t show up, the court keeps the bail and issues a warrant for the defendant’s arrest.
How Bail Is Set
Judges are responsible for setting bail. Because many people want to get out of jail immediately (instead of waiting up to five days to see a judge), most jails have standard bail schedules that specify bail amounts for common crimes. An arrested person can get out of jail quickly by paying the amount set forth in the bail schedule.
The Eighth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution requires that bail not be excessive. This means that bail should not be used to raise money for the government or to punish a person for being suspected of committing a crime. Remember: The purpose of bail is to allow the arrested person to remain free until convicted of a crime, and the amount of bail must be no more than is reasonably necessary to keep the suspect from fleeing before a case is over.
So much for theory. In fact, many judges set an impossibly high bail in particular types of cases (such as those involving drug sales or rape) to keep a suspect in jail until the trial is over. Although bail set for this purpose — called preventative detention — is thought by many to violate the Constitution, courts have uniformly rejected this argument (the issue has never been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of what is and is not constitutional).
If a defendant can’t afford the amount of bail on the bail schedule, he or she can ask a judge to lower it. Depending on the state, this request must be made either in a special bail setting hearing or when the defendant appears in court for the first time (usually called the arraignment).
Bail can take any of the following forms:
cash or check for the full amount of the bail
property worth the full amount of the bail
a bond (that is, a guaranteed payment of the full bail amount), or
a waiver of payment on the condition that the defendant appear in court at the required time (commonly called “release on one’s own recognizance”).
A bail bond is like a check held in reserve: It represents the arrested person’s promise that he or she will appear in court when required. The bail bond is purchased by payment of a nonrefundable premium (usually about 10% of the face amount of the bond).
A bail bond may sound like a good deal, but buying a bond may cost more in the long run. If the full amount of the bail is paid, it will be refunded (less a small administrative fee) when the case is over and all required appearances have been made. On the other hand, the 10% premium is nonrefundable. In addition, the bond seller may require “collateral”. This means that the person who pays for the bail bond must also give the bond seller a financial interest in some of the person’s valuable property. The bond seller can cash in on this interest if the suspect fails to appear in court.
Getting Out of Jail Free
Sometimes people are released “on their own recognizance,” or “O.R.” A defendant released O.R. must simply sign a promise to show up in court and is not required to post bail.
A defendant commonly requests release on his or her own recognizance at the first court appearance. If the judge denies the request, the defendant then asks for low bail.
In general, defendants who are released O.R. have strong ties to a community, making them unlikely to flee. Factors that may convince a judge to grant an O.R. release include the following:
The defendant has family members (most likely parents, a spouse, or children) living in the community.
The defendant has resided in the community for many years.
The defendant has a job.
The defendant has little or no past criminal record, or any previous criminal problems were minor and occurred many years earlier.
The defendant has been charged with previous crimes and has always appeared as required.
For more information on bail, and everything else you need to know about criminal law, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by attorneys Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman-Barrett (Nolo).
© 2009 Nolo
DEFENDANT’S INCENTIVES FOR ACCEPTING PLEA BARGAINS
Learn some of the most common reasons why a defendant might want to enter into a plea bargain.
As criminal courts become more crowded, prosecutors and judges feel increased pressure to move cases quickly through the system. Trials can take days, weeks or sometimes months, while guilty pleas can often be arranged in minutes. This provides defendants with an opportunity to negotiate a plea bargain.
Incentives for the Defendant to Accept a Plea Bargain
For most defendants, the principal benefit of plea bargaining is receiving a lighter sentence for a less-severe charge than might result from taking the case to trial and losing. Also, the outcome of any given trial is usually unpredictable — but a plea bargain provides both prosecution and defense with some control over the result.
There are other benefits as well:
Saving money. Defendants who are represented by private counsel can save a bundle on attorneys’ fees by accepting a plea bargain. It almost always takes more time and effort to bring a case to trial than to negotiate and handle a plea bargain.
Getting out of jail.
Defendants who are held in custody — who either do not have the right to bail or cannot afford bail, or who do not qualify for release on their own recognizance — may get out of jail immediately following the judge’s acceptance of a plea. Depending on the offense, the defendant may get out altogether, on probation, with or without some community service obligations. Or, the defendant may have to serve more time but will still get out much sooner than if he or she insisted on going to trial.
Resolving the matter quickly. A plea bargain provides resolution to the stress of being charged with a crime. Going to trial usually requires a much longer wait — and causes much more stress — than taking a plea bargain.
Having fewer or less-serious offenses on one’s record. Pleading guilty or no contest in exchange for a reduction in the number of charges or the seriousness of the offense looks a lot better on a defendant’s record than the convictions that might result following trial. This can be particularly important if the defendant is ever convicted in the future. For example, a second conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) may carry mandatory jail time, whereas if the first DUI offense had been bargained down to reckless driving, there may be no jail time for the “second” DUI.
Even for people who are never rearrested, getting a charge reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor has other benefits:
Some professional licenses must be forfeited upon conviction of a felony.
Future employers may not want to hire someone previously convicted of a felony.
Felony convictions may be used in certain court proceedings (even civil cases) to discredit people who testify as witnesses.
Felons can’t own or possess firearms.
In many jurisdictions, felons can’t vote.
In addition, it is often advantageous to reduce a felony that constitutes a strike under a “three strikes” law to one that doesn’t.
Having a less socially stigmatizing offense on one’s record. Prosecutors may reduce charges that are perceived as socially offensive to less-offensive charges in exchange for a guilty plea. For example, a prosecutor may reduce a molestation or rape case to an assault. This can have a major impact on the defendant’s relationship with friends and family. Perhaps even more critical, sometimes defendants convicted of stigmatizing offenses may be at a greater risk of being harmed (or killed) in prison than if they are convicted of an offense that doesn’t carry the same stigma.
Avoiding hassles. Some people plead guilty — especially to routine, minor first offenses — without hiring a lawyer. If they waited to go to trial, they would have to find a good lawyer and spend both time and money preparing for trial.
Avoiding publicity. Famous people, ordinary people who depend on their reputation in the community to earn a living, and people who don’t want to bring further embarrassment to their families all may chose to plead guilty or no contest to keep their names out of the public eye. While news of the plea itself may be public, the news is short-lived compared to news of a trial. And rarely is a defendant’s background explored in the course of a plea bargain to the extent it may be done at trial.
Keeping others out of the case. Some defendants plead guilty to take the blame (sometimes called the “rap”) for someone else, or to end the case quickly so that others who may be jointly responsible are not investigated.
Incentives for Judges and Prosecutors to Negotiate Plea Bargains
For a judge, the primary incentive for accepting a plea bargain is to move along a crowded calendar. Most judges simply don’t have time to try every case that comes through the door. Additionally, because jails are overcrowded, judges may face the prospect of having to release convicted people before they complete their sentences. Judges often reason that using plea bargains to “process out” offenders who are not likely to do much jail time leads to fewer problems with overcrowding.
Prosecutors are also concerned about clogged calendars. Crowded calendars mean that the prosecutor’s staff is overworked. Because plea bargains are much quicker and require less work than trials, they are also easier on the prosecutor’s budget.
To learn more about plea bargains and everything else you need to know about criminal trials, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by attorneys Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman-Barrett (Nolo).
© 2009 Nolo
How Defendants’ Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime
Criminal intent — also called “mens rea” — is an element of some, but not all, crimes.
What makes a crime a crime? In most cases, an act is a crime because the person committing it intended to do something that the state legislature or Congress has determined is wrong, also known as criminal intent. This mental state is generally referred to as “mens rea,” Latin for “guilty mind.”
The “mens rea” concept is based on a belief that people should be punished only when they have acted in a way that makes them morally blameworthy. In the legal system’s eyes, people who intentionally engage in the behavior prohibited by a law are morally blameworthy.
“Ordinary” carelessness is not a crime. For example, careless (“negligent”) drivers are not usually criminally prosecuted if they cause an accident, though they may have to pay civil damages to those harmed by their negligence.
However, more-than-ordinary carelessness (“recklessness” or “criminal negligence”) can amount to mens rea. In general, carelessness can be a crime when a person “recklessly disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” It’s up to judges and juries to evaluate a person’s conduct according to community standards and decide whether the carelessness is serious enough to demonstrate mens rea.
Unintentional vs. Intentional Conduct
People who unintentionally engage in illegal conduct may be morally innocent; this is known as making a “mistake of fact.” Someone who breaks the law because he or she honestly misperceives reality lacks mens rea and should not be charged with or convicted of a crime. For example, if Paul Smith hits Jonas Sack because he reasonably but mistakenly thought Sack was about to hit him, Smith would not have mens rea.
While a “mistake of fact” can negate mens rea, a “mistake of law” usually cannot. Even when people don’t realize what they are doing is illegal, if they intentionally commit the act, they are almost always guilty. For example, if Jo sells cocaine believing that it is sugar, Jo has made a mistake of fact and lacks mens rea. However, if Jo sells cocaine in the honest but mistaken belief that it is legal to do so, Jo will have mens rea since she intentionally committed the act. Perhaps the best explanation for the difference is that if a “mistake of law” allowed people to escape punishment, the legal system would encourage people to remain ignorant of legal rules.
Crimes Requiring “Knowing” Engagement in Criminal Conduct
Some laws punish only violators who “knowingly” engage in illegal conduct. What a person has to “know” to be guilty of a crime depends on the behavior that a law makes illegal. For example:
A drug law makes it illegal for a person to “knowingly” import an illegal drug into the United States. To convict a defendant of this crime, the prosecution would have to prove that a defendant knew that what he brought into the United States was an illegal drug. Another drug law makes it illegal to furnish drug paraphernalia with “knowledge” that it will be used to cultivate or ingest an illegal drug. To convict a defendant of this crime, the prosecution would have to prove that a defendant who sold or supplied drug paraphernalia knew about the improper purposes to which the paraphernalia would be put.
Crimes Requiring “Malicious” or “Willful” Behavior
In everyday usage people often use the term “malicious” to mean “spiteful” or “wicked.” In most criminal statutes, however, “malicious” is synonymous with “intentional” and “knowing.” As a result, the term “maliciously” usually adds nothing to the general mens rea requirement. As used in murder statutes, however, the term “malice” is often interpreted as meaning the defendant had a “man-endangering” state of mind when the act was committed, which is enough to justify at least a second degree murder charge.
As with “maliciously,” the term “willfully” usually adds nothing to the general mens rea requirement. At times, however, the term “willfully” in a statute has been interpreted to require the government to prove not only that a person acted intentionally, but also that the person intended to break the law. (This is an unusual instance in which “ignorance of the law” actually is an excuse!) For example, in one case a federal law made it illegal to willfully bring in to the country more than $10,000 in cash without declaring it to customs officials. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that to convict a person of violating this law, the government had to prove that the person knew the law’s requirements. (Ratzlaf v. U.S., 510 U.S. 135 (1994).)
“Specific Intent” Crimes
“Specific intent” laws require the government to do more than show that a defendant acted “knowingly.” Specific intent laws require the government to prove that a defendant had a particular purpose in mind when engaging in illegal conduct.
For example, many theft laws require the government to prove that a defendant took property “with the intent to permanently deprive a person of the property.” To convict a defendant of theft, the government has to prove that a thief’s plan was to forever part a victim from his or her property. For example, a culprit who drives off in another’s car without permission and returns it a few hours later might be convicted only of “joyriding.” However, the same culprit who drives off in another’s car without permission and takes it across the country probably demonstrates a specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car and would be guilty of the more serious crime of car theft.
The Role of “Motive” in Criminal Law
“Motive” generally refers to the reason behind an illegal act. For example, a person’s need to raise money quickly to pay off a bookie may be the motive for a robbery, while revenge for a personal affront may be the motive for a physical attack. Prosecutors often offer motive evidence as circumstantial evidence that a defendant acted intentionally or knowingly. Judges and jurors are more likely to believe that a defendant had mens rea if they know that the defendant had a motive to commit an illegal act. By the same token, defendants may offer evidence showing that they had no motive to commit a crime and then argue that the lack of a motive demonstrates reasonable doubt of guilt.
Crimes That Don’t Require Mens Rea
Laws that don’t require mens rea — that is, laws that punish people who may be morally innocent — are called “strict liability laws.” The usual justification for a strict liability law is that the social benefits of stringent enforcement outweigh the harm of punishing a person who may be morally blameless. Examples of strict liability laws include:
“Statutory rape” laws, which in some states make it illegal to have sexual intercourse with a minor, even if the defendant honestly and reasonably believed that the sexual partner was old enough to consent legally to sexual intercourse.
“Sale of alcohol to minors” laws, which in many states punish store clerks who sell alcohol to minors even if the clerks reasonably believe that the minors are old enough to buy liquor. Strict liability laws like these punish defendants who make honest mistakes and therefore may be morally innocent.
© 2009 Nolo
Accomplices, Accessories, Aiders, and Abettors
Anyone who intentionally participates in a crime or helps a criminal before or after a crime may be held responsible for the crime under accomplice liability.
People can participate in crimes in different ways and to different degrees. For instance, in a bank robbery, one person may enter the bank and conduct the holdup, while another person is waiting in the getaway car and a third person is positioned at a different location as a spotter.
Principals and Accomplices
As a general rule, the law refers to the main actor in a crime as the principal and to assisting persons as accomplices. Technically, an accomplice is one who intentionally helps another to commit a crime.
Even if an accomplice does not carry out the crime, in the eyes of the law the accomplice’s pre-crime assistance makes him or her just as guilty as the person who does the deed itself. For example, assume that Lars Senny breaks into a warehouse and steals property belonging to the warehouse owner. Hal Perr would be Lars’s accomplice and just as guilty as Lars if Hal takes any of the following steps to assist Lars to commit the theft:
Hal works in the warehouse and drugs the warehouse nightwatchman before leaving work on the day of the theft.
Hal cuts the wires to the burglar alarm (or cuts a hole in the fence) so that Lars can enter the warehouse without being detected.
Hal is a designer of warehouses and meets with Lars a week before the theft to review warehouse layouts and exit routes.
Hal rents a U-Haul and parks it outside the warehouse on the night of the robbery.
Knowing what Lars has in mind, Hal agrees to babysit for Lars’s infant child while Lars goes to the warehouse.
To prove that a defendant is an accomplice, the government must prove that he or she intentionally aided in the commission of a crime. This means that the defendant must realize that the principal is going to commit a crime and that the accomplice intends to help the crime succeed.
Accomplices, Accessories, Aiders and Abettors, and Principals
To distinguish the criminal culpability of one from another, the common law developed specialized terms for the various ways in which one could be an accomplice. For instance, a “principal in the first degree” was the person who actually carried out a crime. A “principal in the second degree” (an “aider and abettor”) was a helper who was present at a crime scene but in a passive role, such as acting as a “lookout.” An “accessory before the fact” was a helper who was not present at the crime scene. While some state laws retain the common law terminology, few states make any distinction between the criminal liability of crime perpetrators and their accomplices. All can be punished equally, whether they actually perpetrate a crime or only help bring it about.
Accessory After the Fact
An accessory after the fact is someone who, knowing that a felon has finished committing a crime (usually the crime has to be a felony), helps the felon avoid arrest or trial. In most states, accessories after the fact face far less punishment than accomplices or principals.
Conspirators are two or more people who agree to commit a crime. (The distinction between accomplices and conspirators is that the former are “helpers,” while each conspirator is a principal.) Conspiracy is a controversial crime, in part because conspirators can be guilty even if the crime that they agree to commit never occurs. As a result, conspirators can be punished for their illegal plans rather than for what they actually do. As some protection against convicting people purely for their private thoughts, in most states conspirators are not guilty of the crime of conspiracy unless at least one of them commits an “overt act.” An “overt act” is an activity that in some way moves a conspiracy into motion.
© 2009 Nolo
Defenses to Criminal Charges
Here are some of the common defenses that criminal defendants can raise to defend against criminal charges.
To convict a criminal defendant, the prosecutor must prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As part of this process, the defendant is given an opportunity to present a defense. There are many types of defenses, from “I didn’t do it” to “I did it, but I was too drunk to know what I was doing.” Here are some of the most common defenses that criminal defendants can raise.
The Defendant Didn’t Do It
Most often defendants try to avoid punishment by claiming they did not commit the act in question.
The Presumption of Innocence
All people accused of a crime are legally presumed to be innocent until they are convicted, either in a trial or as a result of pleading guilty. This presumption means not only that the prosecutor must convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt, but also that the defendant need not say or do anything in his own defense. A defendant may simply remain silent, not present any witnesses, and argue that the prosecutor failed to prove his or her case. If the prosecutor can’t convince the jury that the defendant is guilty, the defendant goes free.
The prosecutor must convince the judge or jury hearing the case that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This standard is very hard to meet. As a practical matter, the high burden of proof in criminal cases means that judges and jurors are supposed to resolve all doubts about the meaning of the evidence in favor of the defendant. With such a high standard imposed on the prosecutor, a defendant’s most common defense is often to argue that there is in fact reasonable doubt.
The Alibi Defense
An alibi defense consists of evidence that a defendant was somewhere other than the scene of the crime at the time it was committed. For example, assume that Freddie is accused of committing a burglary on Elm Street at midnight on Friday, September 13. Freddie’s alibi defense might consist of testimony that at the time of the burglary, Freddie was watching Casablanca at the Maple Street Cinema.
The Defendant Did It, But …
Sometimes a defendant can avoid punishment even if the prosecutor shows that that the defendant did, without a doubt, commit the act in question.
Self-defense is a defense commonly asserted by someone charged with a crime of violence, such as battery (striking someone), assault with a deadly weapon, or murder. The defendant admits that he or she did in fact commit the crime, but claims that it was justified by the other person’s threatening actions. The core issues in most self-defense cases are:
Who was the aggressor?
Was the defendant’s belief that self-defense was necessary a reasonable one?
If so, was the force used by the defendant also reasonable?
Self-defense is rooted in the belief that people should be allowed to protect themselves from physical harm. This means that a person does not have to wait until he or she is actually struck to act in self-defense. If a reasonable person in the same circumstances would think that he or she is about to be physically attacked, that person has the right to strike first and prevent the attack. However, an act of self-defense cannot use more force than is reasonable — someone who uses too much force may be guilty of a crime.
The Insanity Defense
The insanity defense is based on the principle that punishment is justified only if the defendant is capable of controlling his or her behavior and understanding that what he or she has done is wrong. Because some people suffering from a mental disorder are not capable of knowing or choosing right from wrong, the insanity defense prevents them from being criminally punished.
The insanity defense is an extremely complex topic; many scholarly works are devoted entirely to explaining its nuances. Here are some major points of interest:
Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, defendants rarely enter pleas of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” When they do, judges and jurors rarely uphold it.
Various definitions of insanity are in use because neither the legal system nor psychiatrists can agree on a single meaning of insanity in the criminal law context. The most popular definition is the “McNaghten rule,” which defines insanity as “the inability to distinguish right from wrong.” Another common test is known as “irresistible impulse”: a person may know that an act is wrong, but because of mental illness he or she cannot control his or her actions (this person is described as acting out of an “irresistible impulse”).
Defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity are not automatically set free. They are usually confined to a mental institution until their sanity is established. These defendants can spend more time in a mental institution than they would have spent in prison had they been convicted.
An insanity defense normally rests on the testimony of a psychiatrist, who testifies after examining the defendant, his or her history, and the facts of the case. Courts appoint psychiatrists at government expense to assist poor defendants who cannot afford to hire their own psychiatrists.
Once a defendant raises his or her sanity as a defense, he or she must submit to psychological tests conducted at the behest of the prosecution. This can be a very painful and humiliating experience, one that many defendants choose to forgo rather than rely on the insanity defense.
Under the Influence
Defendants who commit crimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol sometimes argue that their mental functioning was so impaired that they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Generally, however, voluntary intoxication does not excuse criminal conduct. Defendants know (or should know) that alcohol and drugs affect mental functioning, and thus they should be held legally responsible if they commit crimes as a result of their voluntary use.
Some states allow an exception to this general rule. If the defendant is accused of committing a crime that requires “specific intent” (intending the precise consequences, as well as intending to do the physical act that leads up to the consequences), the defendant can argue that he was too drunk or high to have formed that intent. This is only a partial defense, however, because it doesn’t entirely excuse the defendant’s actions. In this situation, the defendant will usually be convicted of another crime that doesn’t require proof of a specific intent. For example, a defendant may be prosecuted for the crime of assault with specific intent to kill but only convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, which doesn’t require specific intent.
Entrapment occurs when the government induces a person to commit a crime and then tries to punish the person for committing it. However, if a judge or jury believes that a suspect was predisposed to commit the crime anyway, the suspect may be found guilty even if a government agent suggested the crime and helped the defendant to commit it. Entrapment defenses are therefore especially difficult for defendants with prior convictions for the same type of crime.
To learn more about criminal defenses and all other aspects of a criminal trial, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman-Barrett (Nolo).
© 2009 Nolo
Sentencing Alternatives: Prison, Probation, Fines, and Community Service
A convicted defendant’s punishment need not include prison.
A sentence may involve one or more different elements, including incarceration (prison, jail), probation, restitution (victim compensation), and community service.
Some state laws require the judges to impose what are called “determinate” prison sentences. A determinate sentence is a fixed-term sentence pronounced by a judge. For example, a defendant sentenced to “30 days in county jail” or “five years in state prison” has received a determinate sentence.
Other state laws require judges to give “indeterminate sentences.” Indeterminate sentences are those in which the legislature sets a minimum and/or maximum time of incarceration but leaves the decision as to when to release an inmate to prison officials. As a general rule, indeterminate sentences are only imposed on people who are sentenced to state prison after being convicted of a felony.
Suspended Sentences and Probation
Sometimes a defendant’s prison sentence is “suspended.” A suspended sentence is jail or prison time that is put on hold if the defendant complies with certain other obligations, for example, the conditions of probation or the completion of a drug treatment program.
Under a suspended sentence, if the prosecution or probation department can convince a judge that the defendant violated the condition that led to the sentence being suspended in the first place, the judge has authority to order the defendant to serve the original sentence. The probationer is not entitled to a full-blown trial when the question is only whether the defendant violated probation, though the prosecution can choose to also file charges on the incident.
Most states limit when and under what circumstances a court may impose probation on a criminal defendant. For instance, some states do not allow a judge to impose probation on defendants who have a prior conviction for cocaine sales.
Offenders who are put on probation are typically required to adhere to a number of “conditions of probation,” including:
Obey all laws (even petty laws like jaywalking have been known to land a probationer back in jail).
Abide by any court orders, such as an order to pay a fine or restitution.
Report regularly to the probation officer.
Report any change of employment or address to the probation officer.
Abstain from the excessive use of alcohol or the use of any drugs.
Submit to regular alcohol or drug testing.
Refrain from travel outside of the jurisdiction without prior permission of the probation officer.
Avoid certain people and places.
If a probation violation is discovered and reported, it is likely that the court will conduct a probation revocation hearing.
Fines are a common punishment for a variety of crimes, especially less serious offenses committed by first-time offenders. Offenses that are typically punished by a fine include minor drug possession (of a small amount of marijuana, for example), fish and game violations, shoplifting, traffic violations, and first-time drunk driving cases. In more serious offenses or where the defendant has a criminal record, many judges combine a fine with other punishments, such as incarceration, community service, and probation.
While fines go to the state (or federal or local government prosecuting the crime), restitution is money paid by the defendant to the victim or to a state restitution fund. Offenders may be required to return or replace stolen or damaged property, to compensate victims for physical injuries or for medical and psychological treatment costs, or to pay funeral and other costs where a victim dies.
In some cases, the “victim” is society, such as in welfare and Medicare fraud schemes, where defendants may be sentenced to pay the state back the money defrauded. Typically, the defendant will be ordered to pay restitution as just one part of the sentence, in addition to prison, community service, and/or probation.
Judges can sentence defendants to perform unpaid community work called “community service” to repay a debt to society for having committed the offense. The defendant may be required to perform community service in addition to receiving some other form of punishment, such as probation, a fine, or restitution.
Miscellaneous “Alternative Sentences”
There are many different types of “alternative sentences,” which can include fairly innovative punishments. Offenders have been required to:
install breathalyzer devices in their cars so that their cars will not start unless the offender has “clean” breath
give lectures or teach classes about the dangers of criminal behavior
attend lectures given by crime victims
complete a drug or alcohol treatment program
do weekend jail time, or
stay at home under “house arrest.”
Some cases can be “diverted” out of the criminal justice system. Criminal charges are normally dropped when a defendant successfully completes a diversion program. Diversion gives defendants a chance to escape the stigma of a criminal conviction.
Defendants whose cases are diverted typically have to participate in a treatment or rehabilitation program. Diversion programs are most often available to defendants charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies involving drugs or alcohol. In some jurisdictions, diversion may be available to defendants charged with domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, traffic-related offenses, or even writing bad checks.
Prosecutors sometimes voluntarily offer diversion to defendants who are clearly eligible under a community’s guidelines. Defense counsel may also suggest diversion to prosecutors, sometimes even before formal charges are filed.
© 2009 Nolo