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What Is A Criminal Offense?

By Bob Watson

Criminal laws focus on prosecution by the authorities of an individual for an act that has been deemed as a criminal offense. Civil cases, to the contrary, include people and organizations trying to solve legal disagreements. In a criminal legal matter, the governmental body, through a prosecutor, initiates the case, while in a civil scenario the victim brings the cause of action. Persons convicted of a criminal violation may be imprisoned, ticketed, or both. However, individuals determined accountable in a civil legal matter may only have to hand over property or pay cash, but are not imprisoned.

A “crime” is any action or failure to act that offends a public law forbidding or requiring it. Even though there are a number of common law offenses, almost all crimes in the United States are founded by local, state, and federal authorities. Criminal laws vary considerably from state to state. There is, nonetheless, a Model Penal Code (MPC) which serves as a good starting place to attain an understanding of the basic framework of criminal liability.

Crimes consist of both felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are normally violations punishable by imprisonment of a year or more, while misdemeanors are criminal offenses punishable by less than a year. Nevertheless, no act is a criminal offense if it has not been previously set as such either by statute or common law. Recently, the list of Federal violations dealing with conduct stretching out past state boundaries or having unique effect on federal operations, has grown.

All statutes explaining criminal behavior can be split up into their many elements. Nearly all criminal offenses (with the exception of strict-liability violations) contain two elements: an act, or “actus reus,” and a mental state, or “mens rea”. Prosecutors have to establish each and every element of the criminal offense to deliver a conviction. Additionally, the prosecutor has to persuade the jury or judge “beyond a reasonable doubt” of each and every fact required to constitute the crime charged. In civil cases, the plaintiff needs to show a defendant is responsible only by a “preponderance of the evidence,” or more than 50%.

While the burden of proof may be higher in a criminal case, there is often more at stake.

If you are being investigated or charged with a criminal offense, talk to a local San Jose criminal defense lawyer about your options. An experienced San Jose criminal defense lawyer can advise you of rights.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Watson, Bob "What Is A Criminal Offense?." What Is A Criminal Offense?. 2 Jul. 2010. 20 Aug 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Watson, B (2010, July 2). What Is A Criminal Offense?. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Watson, Bob "What Is A Criminal Offense?"

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