In the United States we pride ourselves our legal system. Our legal system is divided into both State and Federal courts, each of which has two branches, the civil court system and the criminal court system. The criminal court system handles the investigation and prosecution of crimes against individuals and against state and federal government.
We understand how disorienting it can be if you or a loved one has recently become involved in the criminal court process. As a result we’ve taken the time to put together some information in the hopes of helping you understand the terms that are used and what occurs in the criminal court process.
First, What is a Crime?
A crime is action or failure to act that violates public law. Things like theft and murder are crimes that easily come to mind but criminal law also includes things like vehicle code violations (speeding, running red lights) and fist fights.
Types of Crimes
Crimes in the US are divided into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Typically speaking, misdemeanors are crimes that a punishable by imprisonment for less than a year (DWI, vehicle code violations, petty theft) and felonies are punishable by imprisonment for more than a year (rape, murder, theft).
Main People Involved In a Criminal Court Case
Prosecutor – The prosecutor is the legal representative of the government who is responsible for the presentation of the case. They work with law enforcement and other government agencies to determine which situations are prosecutable crimes that warrant the involvement of the court system.
Defendant – The defendant is the person who is suspected of committing the crime in question. In some situations there may be more than one defendant who is being prosecuted for a crime.
Witness – A witness is an individual who can provide information about what may have occurred leading up to the commission of a crime, during the commission of a crime or the events after the crime occurred.
Judge – A judge is the individual responsible for overseeing the entire legal process as it occurs within the courtroom. Any hearings will be presided over by a judge to ensure the law is followed.
Jury – The jury is a selected group of individuals from within the community where the case is being tried who will make the determination of whether or not the defendant is responsible for the crime he or she is charged with.
Burden of Proof
In the United States the prosecutor has the burden of proof. This means that the prosecutor must prove the defendant is guilty of the crime he or she is accused of and the defendant doesn’t need to testify or put on a response to the government’s evidence. Many defendants choose to offer a defense but under the Fifth Amendment defendants do not have to speak or participate in the criminal case.
We hope this information makes you a little more comfortable with the terminology associated with criminal cases and helps you understand criminal law in the US a little better. We encourage you to take a look around our website for more specific information relating to criminal law and the criminal court process.