The History and Main Features of Criminal Law in the USA.

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Karen Mazo

CJ 203-B4


Criminal Law

        The study of criminal law is actually a study of human behavior. It is more than a study of specific crimes; it is also an examination of the rules of human behavior and criminal responsibility.Criminal law is based on moral values, and many of our crimes are also violations of our moral standards.People in all societies have the inherit right to protect their society and those living in that society from acts that threaten either the society or the people. And for this reason we have written or unwritten laws forbidding and punishing acts considered harmful to the group or the individual.

The Colonial period in America saw changes to the English Common Law which reflected the cultural and social differences that were developing in the new nation. In many ways the law in America became more complex, reflecting the influence of “enlightenment” philosophy and, at the same time, reacting to the concentration of power in the hands of the leaders.Conflicting ideologies and shifting demographics resulted in a natural state of checks and balances in the criminal justice system. The power of the jury to decide both “the facts and the law” acted as an informal reform of the system.

As criminal law developed in the 20th century, American Jurisprudence moved further and further away from common law principle that a crime consisted of two elements, a guilty deed Actus Reus plus a guilty mind Mens Rea. The requirement of an act is one that is evidence of a choice being made and choice, of course, brings into question the state of mind. Prosecutors have to prove each and every element of the crime to yield a conviction. Furthermore, the prosecutor must persuade the jury or judge "beyond a reasonable doubt" of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged.In an effort to make the criminal justice system more uniform and predictable, judges and legal theorists sought to marginalize the element of “intent”. They sought to blur the lines between criminal law and civil law by minimizing, or eliminating altogether, the requirement of mensrea.To understand our criminal law, it is necessary to focus on the one characteristic that differentiates it from civil law. That characteristic is punishment.

The American Constitution was written in 1787. The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. It’s preamble states that the purposes of the United States Constitution are to “establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility,… promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our property.”(textbook) On December 15, 1791, ten amendments were added to the Constitution. The first ten amendments of the United States Constitution compose our federal Bill of Rights. These amendments guarantee certain freedoms and rights and they also protect individual rights against government intrusion.

        There are, however, constitutional limits on the power of government officials in order to prevent them from abusing the rights of individuals, including those accused of criminal behavior. The constitutional rights of the accused are the following.The Fourth amendment protects individuals against unreasonable and unwarranted searches and seizures of their property. In order for there to be a search of your private propertythere must be a probable causefor issuing a warrant to authorize a search or arrest.The Fifth Amendment basically means the right to a fair trial. It also states that a person has the right to not speak. In other words, no person will be forced to confess wrongdoing or say anything that might get them into trouble.The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affords criminal defendants seven discrete personal liberties which are the right to a Speedy Trial; the right to a public trial; the right to an impartial jury; the right to be informed of pending charges; the right to confront and to cross-examine adverse witnesses; the right to compel favorable witnesses to testify at trial through the subpoena power of the judiciary; and the right to legal counsel. The Eighth amendment protects individuals from overly harsh punishments and excessive fines and bail which is the amount of money required to secure a person's release from custody while awaiting trial. The Fourteenth amendment prohibits states from denying the equal protection of their laws. This constitutional right implies that all persons will be treated with substantially equality.  

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American ideas about the rights of the accused can be traced to the great English documents of liberty, such as the Magna Carta in 1215, and the English Bill of Rights 1689. These documents embodied the principles of limited government and the rule of law, which all were bound to obey. These ideas were developed in England and brought to the North American colonies in the 1600s. American colonists expanded their English legal heritage to provide new and higher levels of protection for the rights of the accused.

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