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Essay: Overview of US law

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  • Subject area(s): Law essays
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  • Published: June 10, 2021*
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  • Overview of US law
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A law is a rule of conduct, generally found enacted in the form of a statute, that proscribes or mandates certain forms of behavior.

1. Nature and Purpose of Law

a. Laws keep people safe and ensures fairness and protection of basic rights to all individuals. Statutory law is written or codified law; it is also the “law on the books,” as enacted by a government body or agency having the power to make laws. A penal code is the written, organized, and compiled form of the criminal law of a jurisdiction. Case law is the body of judicial precedent, historically built on legal reasoning and past interpretations of statutory laws, that serves as a guide to decision making, especially in the courts. Common law is law originating from usage and custom rather than from written statutes. It refers to an unwritten body of judicial opinion.

2. The Rule of Law

a. Rule of law is the maxim that an orderly society must be governed by established principles and known codes that are applied uniformly and fairly to all of its members. We, as Americans, may not, under any circumstance, go against the law; however, we don’t have to agree with what the law states. Jurisprudence is the philosophy of law; it is also the science and study of the law.

3. Types of Law

a. Criminal law is the body of rules and regulations that define and specify the nature of and punishments for offenses of a public nature or for wrongs committed against the state or society (also called penal law). Public order is also relevant to criminal law in that the safety of society’s citizens affected by a criminal’s act/behavior is the government’s top priority. Examples of violations of criminal law include: murder, rape, robbery, and assault.

b. There are 2 types of statutory law: substantive and procedural. Substantive criminal law is the part of the law that defines crimes and specifies punishments. Procedural law is the part of the law that specifies the methods to be used in enforcing substantive law.

c. Civil law is the branch of modern law that governs relationships between parties. For example, civil law can take the form of divorce proceedings, custody battles, contracts, etc. If someone were to violate their business contract, the “victim” can then file a civil suit. A tort is a wrongful act, damage, or injury not involving a breach of contract. It is also a private or civil wrong or injury. “Victims” typically seek restitution in the form of money.

d. Administrative law is the body of regulations that governments create to control the activities of industries, businesses, and individuals. However, this particular type of law is not considered a crime. Examples of this type of law include: tax laws, health and building codes, etc.

e. Case law includes the law of precedent, a legal principle that ensures that previous judicial decisions are authoritatively considered and incorporated into future cases. In addition to precedent, stare decisis (“standing by decided matters) is a legal principle requiring that, in subsequent cases on similar issues of law and fact, courts be bound by their own earlier decisions and by those of higher courts having jurisdiction over them.

4. General Categories of Crime

a. Felonies are criminal offenses punishable by death or by incarceration in a prison facility for at least one year. By definition, a felony is by far the most severe category of crime.

b. Misdemeanors are offenses punishable by incarceration, usually in a local confinement facility, for a period whose upper limit is prescribed by statute in a given jurisdiction, typically one year or less. Such offenses include petty theft, simple assault, B&E, etc.

c. Offenses are violations of the criminal law. Typically, they are defined as ticketable. A common synonym is infraction, which is a minor violation of state statute or local ordinance punishable by a fine or other penalty or by a specified, usually limited, term or incarceration. Infractions typically are punished with a ticket and a swift release. However, offenders must agree to appear in court.

d. Treason is a U.S. citizen’s actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the United States. Espionage is the gathering, transmitting, or losing of information related to national defense in such a manner that the information becomes available to enemies of the United States and may be used to their advantage.

e. Inchoate offenses are ones that are not yet completed. For example, if a person conspires to commit murder, but doesn’t follow through, he/she can be charged with an inchoate offense, or attempted murder.

5. General Features of Crime

a. The Criminal Act

i. The first element of any crime is a actus reus, an act in violation of the law; also refers to a guilty act.

ii. Mens rea refers to the state of mine that accompanies a criminal act. It is also refers to the particular mindset a criminal has when they carry out a crime. There are four main types of mens rea:

1. Intentional refers to whether the offender actually intended to commit the crime. For example, did they really mean to kill that person or was it an accident.

2. Knowledge involves the individual knowing that what he/she is about to do carries risks. However, they carry on as planned.

3. Reckless behavior is any activity that increases the risk of harm. Criminal negligence is any behavior in which a person fails to reasonably perceive the substantial and unjustifiable risks of dangerous consequences. However, negligence is not considered a crime. Motive involves the reasoning behind a person committing a crime.

4. Strict liability is liability without fault or intention. Intent does not apply to liability because if there is potential for harm, it is considered “blameworthy.”

iii. Concurrence is the coexistence of 1) an act in violation of the law, and 2) a culpable mental state.

1. However, some disagree. They believe that if you have a guilty mind and a harmful act, then you have grounds for causation. Legal cause refers to a legally recognizable cause. A legal cause must be demonstrated in court in order to hold an individual criminally liable for causing harm.

6. Elements of a Specific Criminal Offense

a. For example, when talking about murder, more specifically murder in the first degree, involves the unlawful, intentional killing of a human being, or malice aforethought. On the other hand, second-degree murder involves a crime of passion. For example, it is often fueled by hatred. A man murders a guy for sleeping with his wife. He was fueled by the hatred of this man for seducing his wife. Manslaughter does not involve intention. It typically involves reckless behavior. For example, if you are involved in a fatal collision of two teenage girls, but did not intend it to happen, you will typically be charged with manslaughter.

b. Corpus delicti refers to the facts that show that a crime has occurred. Basically, if you cannot prove that a crime has occurred, then you do not have corpus delicti; thus, you cannot be tried for that particular crime. Without the actus reus and mens rea, you do not have corpus delicti.

7. Types of Defenses to a Criminal Charge

a. An offender’s defense is the evidence and arguments offered by he/she and his or her attorney to show why the defendant should not be held liable for a criminal charge. There are four main types of defenses:

i. An alibi is a statement or contention by an individual charged with a crime that he or she was so distant when the crime was committed, or so engaged in other provable activities , that his or her participation in the commission of that crime was impossible.

ii. A justification is a legal defense in which the defendant admits to committing the act in question but claims it was necessary in order to avoid some greater evil. For example, many impose the self-defense strategy, the protection of oneself or of one’s property from unlawful injury or from the immediate risk of unlawful injury. Reasonable force is the degree of force that is appropriate in a given situation and is not excessive. Alter ego rule is a rule of law that holds that a person can defend a third party only under the circumstances and only to the degree that the third party could legally act on his or her own behalf.

iii. Excuses involve some personal condition or circumstance at the time of the act was such that the actor should not be held accountable under the criminal law. Common excuses employed by defendants include:

1. A person can claim duress when they are forced into an act of criminality, commonly by coercion.

2. Others argue that their age is a factor. Some believe that children should not be charged with a crime. That is why children under the age of 7 cannot be charged with a crime.

3. Others claim that it was simply a “mistake.” However, this is not a strong or even believable defense. Other defenses include involuntary intoxication, which involves the not knowing of ingesting an intoxicating substance. Similarly, unconsciousness can also be applied as a defense, but is only seen in rare circumstances.

4. The most well-known defense is the insanity defense, a legal defense based on claims of mental illness or mental incapacity. The M’Naughten rule is a rule that determines insanity, which asks whether the defendant knew what he or she was doing or whether the defendant knew what he or she was doing was wrong. It is named after Daniel M’Naughten, the first person to successfully gain the insanity plea. Irresistible impulse refers to the fact that the defendant knew what they did was wrong, but could not control the impulse of doing so. Guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) is a verdict, equivalent to a finding of “guilty,” that establishes that the defendant, although mentally ill, was in sufficient possession of his or her faculties to be morally blameworthy for his or her acts. If successfully used, the punishment per say would be mandatory psychiatric treatment, involving the defendant to be committed to a psychiatric facility for treatment.

5. Diminished capacity is a defense based on claims of a mental condition that may be insufficient to exonerate the defendant of guilt but that may be relevant to specific mental elements of certain crimes.

6. Incompetent to stand trial is a finding by the courts, that as a result of mental illness, a defendant is incapable of understanding the nature of the charges and proceedings against him or her, of consulting with an attorney, and of aiding in his or her own defense.

iv. Procedural Defenses

1. Entrapment is an improper or illegal inducement to crime by agents of law enforcement. It is always with agents within the criminal justice system.

2. Double jeopardy is a common law and constitutional prohibition against a second trial for the same offense. It is said so in the constitution, under the Fifth Amendment.

3. Other procedural defenses include: collateral estoppel, selective prosecution, denial of a speedy trial (as said by the sixth amendment), prosecutorial misconduct, and police fraud. The defense of police fraud typically includes individuals who fell victim to planted evidence by the police.

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