Suppose you get involved in a criminal incident. How would you protect yourself? It’s not every day that you get instant legal counsel from a criminal defense attorney. However, knowing what is considered criminal conduct gives you a slight advantage.
Although it’s never wise to be the sole judge of your legal issues, it also pays off to understand your situation.
That’s why in this blog post, we’ll help you navigate through the core concepts of criminal law. We’ll define what crime is and what elements satisfy criminal conduct.
Without further ado, let’s dive into our discussion.
What constitutes a crime?
A crime is an unlawful behavior—either by act or omission—prescribed by a statute as punishable. A person commits an offense if he or she acts in a way that fulfills the following elements: actus reus (criminal act), mens rea (criminal intent), and causation.
Criminal act or actus reus refers to the physical and voluntary act that a statute considers unlawful, particularly one which causes harm against a person (murder) or property (arson).
Similarly, a criminal act can also be satisfied by an act of omission. It applies when a person had a duty to act but remained negligent. An example of an act of criminal negligence would be the failure to pay taxes or ignoring one’s duty on child support.
Remember, though, that an act should be voluntary to constitute a crime. Any involuntary or unintentional action (e.g., seizures) that precipitated an incident wouldn’t count as an actus reus.
How do you establish an actus reus?
The prosecution must prove that the individual truly engaged in a voluntary act that caused physical harm to a person or property. Criminal liability also requires proof of a physical act.
A sample scenario would be a thief breaking into someone’s property or a person who’s caught in the act while selling illegal drugs.
On the other hand, the crime of omission could give rise to criminal liability if the prosecution was able to prove the existence of the following elements:
- The legal duty to act
- The individual’s knowledge of his or her duty
- A good reason to perform the individual’s duty
Actus reus will have to be proven alongside mens rea to justify the individual’s liability. The prosecution must also satisfy both criminal act and intent to reach a verdict and reasonable punishment.
In simple terms, mens rea means criminal intent. It’s what criminal law regards as the mental element of a crime. During prosecution, the jury must provide evidence that the person accused of wrongdoing intended to participate in a crime. It can refer to a deliberate intent to break the law.
Types of criminal intent
Typically, mens rea is classified into three types:
- General – it’s an intent presumed in the act of commission ( speeding)
- Specific – this requires premeditation (kidnapping)
- Constructive – unintentional result of an action (e.g., vehicular manslaughter)
The third crime element is causation, or the relationship between the individual’s conduct and the result. Causation can either be proximate or but-for causation.
Proximate causation is an actual cause that is legally sufficient to justify criminal liability. It’s also called “legal cause” or the one the law recognizes as the primary cause of the injury. For instance, when Car A hits Car B, driver A’s actions are the actual cause of the incident.
Then you have the but-for causation that helps determine the proximate cause of a damage or injury due to one’s negligence. This rule establishes whether the injury would not have happened “but for” the individual’s negligent action or omission.
To put it simply, imagine a drunk driver weaving in and out of traffic. Losing sense of his driving instincts, he accidentally hit another car, causing someone’s death. The incident would not have occurred but for the drunk driver’s intoxication.
What are the three types of criminal offenses?
Generally, acts or conducts that constitute criminal liabilities can be classified into three types: infraction, misdemeanor, and felony.
Petty crimes or infractions are minor offenses requiring only minor penalties like fines. Infractions include offenses like:
- Parking overtime
- Violating seatbelt laws
While the law acknowledges infraction as a minor offense, it could have greater consequences if a person fails to resolve penalty charges. For example, a speeding ticket in Texas could cost as much as $356, depending on the crime location. And in a case of accrued driving violations, incorrigible drivers could face license suspensions.
A misdemeanor is a criminal offense resulting in a jail sentence. Aside from a year (or less) of imprisonment, a person charged with misdemeanor could undergo probation, render community service, or pay higher fines.
The most common misdemeanors include:
- Driving Under the Influence (DUI)
- Simple assault
Some states classify misdemeanors to determine the severity of a crime and the degree of a punishment to impose. While states divide misdemeanors into classes (e.g., Class A or Level 1), others use terms to describe each level (e.g., misdemeanor, high misdemeanor, or gross misdemeanor).
Compared to an infraction and misdemeanor, a felony is a crime of extreme seriousness with heavier sentences, such as longer jail times, steeper fines, or even death. This type of offense carries more weight because of its perceived severe impact on human life and society. Felonies involve violent crimes like murder, manslaughter, robbery, assault, and rape.
Criminal codes at federal levels categorize felonies by severity, with the first level/class being the most serious.
Some states do not have a classification system. Instead, they impose penalties based on the statute defining a particular crime.
Generally, crimes such as murder and kidnapping are classified as Level 1 felonies. Carrying the severest penalties are rape, involuntary servitude of minors, and other heinous crimes.
Non-violent crimes may also fall into the highest category of felonies, such as certain drug-related crimes. Other severe crimes that may qualify as class A, level 1, or carrying the severest penalties are rape, involuntary servitude of minors, and other offenses considered heinous. While considered a non-violent crime, drug-related crimes also fall into the highest category of felonies.
As discussed, to understand what criminal conduct means, you have to know what the term crime implies. A crime is an unlawful act, and a person can be criminally liable if he or she:
- Acted in a particular way that violates the law
- Failed to act despite being compelled by his or her duty
- Behaved with criminal intent
It also has three elements: the act, intent, and causation. And the prosecution has the burden of proof to establish every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Criminal conduct can be classified into three types: infraction or petty crimes, misdemeanor, and felony or crime of high seriousness.
Consult a Criminal Defense Attorney in Texas
Crazy things happen to anyone at any time. You could get involved in an unwanted incident one day, and who knows what would occur next? In this situation, it’s either you become the victim or the offender.
It’s possible to be arrested or punished for a crime without knowing you committed one because ignorance of the law excuses no one. However, you’ve already saved yourself a lot of trouble by learning how the criminal justice system works and what’s considered criminal conduct.
There’s a caveat here, though:
It’s not advisable to evaluate your case on your own. Therefore, having a reliable criminal defense law firm to serve as your official legal counsel will give you the upper hand.
If you need legal advice, you have Texas criminal defense attorneys at the Law Office of Annie Scott. Book your appointment to ease your worries right away.