What is a Crime?

The legal definition of a crime requires the violation of a statutory law, that is, the violation of a law that has been enacted by federal statute, the California Legislature or by a local authority forbidding or commanding an act. Most often a crime is the commission of an illegal act but some examples of crimes of omission include child neglect or a failure to report certain crimes. As an Orange County criminal defense attorney, I defend those accused of any crime charged in the State of California.

Jurisdiction

While living in or visiting California, a person is subject to California laws. An act in California may not be unlawful in another state and vice versa but residency does not matter. For example, a person may have an open carry permit in his state of residency but find himself promptly arrested for carrying his gun in California.

In the larger dimension, any person operating in the United States is subject to the federal laws but whether an act is a crime under state or federal jurisdiction usually depends on the crime and where the crime took place. Most crimes are under the state’s jurisdiction unless the United States is the victim of the crime or the crime took place on federal property, such as a federal park or a military base or if the crime involved the crossing of state lines. Some crimes fall are under the purview of both state and federal authorities and may be prosecuted in state or federal court… or in both, without double jeopardy protection. A criminal defense lawyer, who is practicing in Orange County and licensed by the State of California, can also represent defendants before the federal courts as long as the attorney is admitted to practice before that court.

Intent

Not all crimes require intent. In fact, many do not. It is often enough that the act was committed negligently, even if the outcome was never anticipated or intended. A good example of this is manslaughter. Say a person is speeding down a dark country road and hits a pedestrian, killing her. The driver can, and probably will, be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Here’s an example of a crime of omission without intent: A mother leaves her three-year-old child sleeping at home alone for an hour while she visits the next-door neighbor. While she is away, the child awakens and goes looking for his mom. He toddles outside, walks into the street and is hit and killed by an oncoming car. Mom may be charged with child neglect, child endangerment, and involuntary manslaughter.

Charging a Crime

Usually the police are the first responders to a criminal act. The police then report the act to the local prosecutor (county district attorney’s office) with recommendations that the prosecutor charge certain violations of the criminal statute. It is the prosecutor who ultimately decides on the charges and files the charging document (usually a criminal complaint). Like a civil lawsuit, a criminal complaint is a lawsuit except the state (or locality or federal government) is the plaintiff and the accused is the defendant. Thus, in California, a criminal lawsuit is titled “The People of California” versus the defendant’s name.

Many people believe that if the direct victim of a crime does not want to prosecute (press charges), that the district attorney will not file the charges. This is incorrect. The prosecutor, as the representative of the people of the state, can, and usually will, continue to press forward. This is because the state is charged with protecting all of the people in the state, not just the direct victim. In the larger sense, the “People” are the victims of all crimes committed in the state.

Misdemeanors and Felonies

In California, there are two classes of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors. Some crimes are called “wobblers” because they can be prosecuted as a felony or a misdemeanor. Whether a crime is a felony or misdemeanor is defined by its minimum punishment. Felonies are crimes punishable by imprisonment of one year or more in county jail or a term in state prison. Misdemeanors are crimes punishable by up to a year in county jail only. As for wobblers, the prosecutor more often than not charges these types of crimes as a felony but with the assistance and advocacy of an effective criminal defense attorney, the court may ultimately pronounce judgment on the crime as a misdemeanor.

Proving the Crime

To prove that a crime has been committed, the prosecutor must prove each “element” of the particular crime. Every crime has elements, which are the required components of the act of commission or omission as set forth in the statute. For example to prove the charge of simple arson in violation of Penal Code section 451, the prosecutor must prove by the evidence that:

  1. The defendant set fire to or burned ((or helped or caused either) a structure, forest land, or property
  2. willfully and maliciously.

Unlike a civil trial, which has a lower standard of proof (preponderance of the evidence), a criminal conviction requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In other words, the prosecutor must convince the judge or jury that the evidence raises a “moral certainty” that each of the elements of the crime occurred. Often the proof is nuanced and it takes an experienced criminal defense attorney to discover the flaws in the prosecution’s evidence. In the arson example above, if the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant willfully set a fire but there is some doubt as to whether the fire was maliciously set (which is defined as intentionally doing the wrongful act), then the prosecutor has not proved the case.

I believe the Constitution matters most when it serves the individual against the awesome power of the state. A good lawyer is the only protection between you, the police, the court, and the district attorney. I am an experienced criminal defense lawyer with over 20 years serving Orange County and I will defend you to the maximum extent of the law. Call me at (949) 474-8008 or contact me at bill@williamweinberg.com to discuss your matter confidentially 24 hours a day.