Inside Criminal Law; What is Your Defense and What Rights Do You Have?

As well as having laws in place to protect people from harm and to encourage good social values within a community, laws are also guidelines which people are expected to live by. The federal government has laws, while each state and its municipalities also have statutes and local ordinances; however, no state or municipal laws can override federal law in the United States of America.

Two Main Functions of Criminal Law

There are two main purposes for which the criminal law has been devised; the first purpose is to protect individuals and their property from harm. No person is permitted to intentionally cause physical or emotional harm to another person, nor are they allowed to cause damage to any property owned by that person; preserving the social and moral values of the community as a whole is of the utmost importance. The second purpose of criminal law is to provide a set of rules which people are expected to live by. For example, it is not permissible for any person to drive a motor vehicle without the appropriate license. It is these kinds of rules and regulations which are needed to maintain and promote safe and orderly conduct and the wellbeing of society on a day to day basis.

Written Sources of American Criminal Law

There are four main sources of American criminal law, all of which are documented in detail and accessible to the public (Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.77). Case law is the interpretation of constitutional, state, administrative and municipal laws in a particular jurisdiction. For example, a Judge may rule that no gay couple is permitted to foster or adopt children in the state of Arkansas because gay couples are not recognized as being lawfully married in that jurisdiction. However, another state may permit adoption or fostering by same sex couples because gay marriages are legally permitted via legislation in that state. While it could be argued that this particular ruling would be unconstitutional, state legislature which has been amended to exclude single persons from fostering or adopting children in Arkansas would negate any act of discrimination against a person due to his or her sexual preference. Discrimination against any person because of sexual preference is a violation of constitutional rights at the federal level, and therefore cannot be circumvented by any state law.

Local, state and federal government agencies also have rules and regulations to adhere to. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, have regulations in place which force manufacturers to clearly display nutrition information on the labels of their products. These rules are made to protect the health of the public, and so consumers can make informed decisions regarding food choices. Regulations differ of course, depending on the agency, and some violations can result in the punishment of an individual or a corporation in a criminal court.

Statutory law covers city, county, parish and municipal ordinances, laws determined by voters and passed by legislature in a particular state, and federal statutes which must be approved and enacted by U.S. Congress. (Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.78). Statutes are enforced according to the jurisdiction to which they apply, although federal statutes are applicable in all states and the District of Columbia.

Constitutional law exists at the federal level, as well as for each state. No state however, shall violate the terms of federal constitutional law, and any attempt to do so will be rendered invalid by the United States Supreme Court. Although some may be similar, the constitutional laws of each state can only be enforced within that area. Furthermore, "the Tenth Amendment, which defines the powers and limitations of the federal government, reserves to the states all powers not granted to the federal government"(Gaines & Miller, 2006,p.77).

Limiting Criminal Responsibility

Putting oneself into a situation which may cause harm to others is not only irresponsible; it can be a criminal offense. If for example, an individual arrives at a party with friends and proceeds to drink an excessive amount of alcohol, he or she will be held responsible if the drive home results in an accident and the death of one of the passengers. Similarly, a person who is neglectful of the basic needs of a person in their care can be prosecuted for causing injury or death, despite any argument that they were not aware of the possible harmful consequences of their actions.

Justification and Excuse Defenses

Insanity can be a justifiable defense in criminal proceedings; however, this is not always the case. If it can be proven that the offender's cognitive processes were impaired at the time of the act, a person may be acquitted of all wrongdoing, have their sentenced reduced, or be sentenced to treatment for the disorder until they are deemed fit to serve the remainder of their sentence in prison. Laws regarding the insanity defense vary from state to state, and testing is required to determine if insanity is a reasonable defense. Three such tests exist:

The M’Naughten Rule relies on the defendant’s inability to distinguish right from wrong. The Irresistible Impulse Test under which a defendant who knew his or her action was wrong may still be found insane if he or she was nonetheless unable, as a result of a mental deficiency, to control the urge to complete it, and the Durham Rule; an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect.

(Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.83)

At times, an offender will offer justification for a criminal act, and although there are strict guidelines, some excuses are considered valid. An example of a reasonable excuse would be duress, although the accused must be able to demonstrate that the situation they were in was impossible to leave at that time. The accused must also be able to show that the threat to them was sufficient to cause physical injury or that it would have resulted in their death, that they became involved against their wishes, and that the threat they faced was more serious than any harm they had caused.

Procedural Safeguards

There are processes in place to make sure that all laws are applied in a fair and just manner. The Bill of Rights is a list of amendments made to the Constitution and was "adopted in 1791"(Gaines & Miller, 2006, p.89). The Fourteenth Amendment offers protection for citizens from state and federal governments. Both the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments require that "no one can be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the 'due process' of law"(Gaines & Miller, 2006.p.89). Substantive process ensure that the laws themselves are justifiable, while procedural processes protect the constitutional rights of all parties involved, in particular, the accused.

In accordance with the Sixth Amendment, the accused has the right to an impartial jury, but many legal issues have arisen since the terrorist attacks of September 11. Shortly after the event, the federal government placed restrictions on due process rights for those who were suspected of terrorist involvement, and while some believe this to be unconstitutional, others strongly disagree. Since some of those detained were American citizens, this civil liberties issue looks set to continue for some time without a mutually suitable resolution. While the law is obvious to most people, there are those who intentionally break the rules due to a complete lack of disregard for others. Every individual has the opportunity to familiarize themselves with each of the laws, therefore, any criminal act committed by an individual who then claims ignorance of the law shall not have a legitimate defense.


Gaines, L. & Miller, R. L. (2006). Criminal justice in action: The core (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth. ISBN: 0-495-00305-4.


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