Criminal Law System of the United States
The United States is a former English colony, and its laws were initially based on the common law of the parent nation. The states that were settled by Spain, France, and Mexico before joining the country developed civil-law systems, though they abandoned them afterward (Siegler , pp. 70-71). In common-law frameworks, judges interpret the laws passed by legislators and make decisions that are later used as precedents for future cases (Siegler, p. 70). Judges are expected to abide by these precedents in a principle that is known as stare decisis. With that said, the United States has diverged from the English procedure considerably over time with the intent of modernizing and simplifying it, particularly in matters of pleading (Friedman, p. 116). As such, nowadays, the two legal systems are considerably different in practice despite their shared underlying principles.
Laws are differentiated into a variety of categories that are separated by level, source, and intention. Neubauer and Meinhold distinguish national, state, and local law, constitutions, statutes, and administrative regulations, and case law, public and private law, civil and criminal law, and substantive and procedural law as different areas (p. 30). Federal law is recorded in the Constitution and statutes and regulations that are issued by the Congress and federal agencies. In some fields, it takes precedence over state law, but the latter is generally responsible for defining everything not covered by the broader legislation. States can delegate some of their lawmaking capabilities to counties, cities, and other entities and usually do so, generating the lowest level of local law. Private law governs interactions between individuals as opposed to the government for public regulation. Civil and criminal laws diverge in the nature of the harm (private or public). Lastly, substantive law refers to rights, while procedural law governs the enforcement of these rights.
The United States Constitution
The United States Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788 as an attempt to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation. It is separated into seven articles, each of which deals with a specific aspect of government (Hurt, p. 37). Article I defines the legislative branch, and articles II and III outline the executive and judicial ones, respectively. Article IV explains the roles of the state in the broader national framework. Article V provides a procedure for the introduction of amendments to the Constitution. Article VI cements its position as the supreme law of the nation, positioned above that of the states. Lastly, Article VII is an instruction regarding the ratification of the document. The Constitution has also been throughout the years, with the first ten amendments being known as the Bill of Rights.
The name comes from the history of the introduction of the ten amendments as well as their purpose. Most of the Anti-Federalist faction, as well as some Federalists, were concerned that the government would seize excessive power and restrict the freedoms of the people. Signorelli adds that the unchecked power of the English government and its abuses in America served as examples of such power and its misuse (p. 27). Acknowledging these arguments, North Carolina and Rhode Island refused to ratify the Constitution in its original form. To address these concerns, the a set of twelve articles, ten of which were passed. They include rights such as the freedom of speech and religion as well as the ability to request a trial by jury when criminally prosecuted. It should be noted that the Constitution cannot encompass the entirety of various rights that people have, and the Ninth Amendment addresses the issue.
Crimes, Requirements, and Defenses
Murder may be among the most popular varieties of crime due to its prevalence in popular culture. It can be used as a demonstration of the concepts of actus reus (the guilty act) and mens rea (the guilty mind) (Allen, p. 31). The defendant is convicted for murder if it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they killed a person and that they intended to do so. There is also a distinction based on whether the act was spontaneous or premeditated, with the latter exacerbating the severity of the crime and the punishment. A for murder (the introduction of additional factors that shift the case in the defendants favor) is the insanity plea. It establishes a lack of mens rea through the claim that the defendants mental illness prevented them from comprehending the nature of their actions.
A homicide where mens rea is absent or diminished, such as an accidental killing or a perceived home defense against an intruder that does not threaten the inhabitants life, is known as manslaughter. Punishments for it tend to be less severe than those for murder because of the extenuating circumstances. With that said, the defendants motivations are still crucial in determining the severity of the verdict, with specific prescriptions varying by state. Affirmative defenses that identify the homicide as warranted, most prominently the , can apply to mitigate the punishment or remove it entirely.
Both of the crimes above depend on mens rea to some degree, which means that they do not have strict liability. Under this concept, it becomes unnecessary to consider the presence or absence of mens rea when discussing the actus reus. Driving under the influence (DUI) offenses can serve as a demonstration of this concept, as it is only necessary to show that the defendant was intoxicated while driving for a conviction (Carter and Burke, p. 153). Strict liability generally only applies to minor crimes in the United States, as serious crimes typically involve an element of motivation. The distinction between murder and manslaughter serves as an example, as they are differentiated by the defendants mental state.