Every State has its own definition of what constitutes a crime. These criteria are typically referred to as elements. In order for you to be charged with a particular crime, you must have committed all of the elements that constitute that crime. In order for you to be convicted of a crime, the State prosecutor must prove to a jury that you committed those elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
It is the job of the Criminal Defense Attorney to prove to the jury that you didn’t commit all of the elements of the crime you are charged with and introduce evidence that creates some level of doubt in their minds that it may not have been you who committed the crime.
Aiding & Abetting/Conspiracy
A criminal charge of aiding and abetting or accessory can usually be brought against anyone who helps in the commission of a crime, though legal distinctions vary by state. A person charged with aiding and abetting or accessory is usually not present when the crime itself is committed, but he or she has knowledge of the crime before or after the fact, and may assist in its commission through advice, actions, or financial support. Depending on the degree of involvement, the offender’s participation in the crime may rise to the level of conspiracy.
Under the criminal law of most states, arson is committed when a person intentionally burns almost any kind of structure or building, not just a house or business. Many states recognize differing degrees of arson, based on such factors as whether the building was occupied and whether insurance fraud was intended.
Assault & Battery
In most states, an assault/battery is committed when one person 1) tries to or does physically strike another, or 2) acts in a threatening manner to put another in fear of immediate harm. Many states declare that a more serious or “aggravated” assault/battery occurs when one 1) tries to or does cause severe injury to another, or 2) causes injury through use of a deadly weapon. Historically, laws treated the threat of physical injury as “assault”, and the completed act of physical contact or offensive touching as “battery,” but many states no longer differentiate between the two.
Burglary is typically defined as the unlawful entry into almost any structure (not just a home or business) with the intent to commit any crime inside (not just theft/larceny). No physical breaking and entering is required; the offender may simply trespass through an open door. Unlike robbery, which involves use of force or fear to obtain another person’s property, there is usually no victim present during a burglary.
Child abuse is broadly defined in many states as any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child, including mental abuse, physical harm, neglect, and sexual abuse or exploitation. The specific crimes charged in instances of child abuse can include assault and battery. In many states, certain individuals and caregivers are required by law to report suspected child abuse.
Federal and state laws make it a crime to produce, possess, distribute, or sell pornographic materials that exploit or portray a minor. Increasingly, child pornography laws are being utilized to punish use of computer technology and the Internet to obtain, share, and distribute pornographic material involving children, including images and films.
A criminal conspiracy exists when two or more people agree to commit almost any unlawful act, then take some action toward its completion. The action taken need not itself be a crime, but it must indicate that those involved in the conspiracy knew of the plan and intended to break the law. One person may be charged with and convicted of both conspiracy and the underlying crime based on the same circumstances.
Credit/Debit Card Fraud
Credit/debit card fraud is committed when one person 1) fraudulently obtains, takes, signs, uses, sells, buys, or forges someone else’s credit or debit card or card information; 2) uses his or her own card with the knowledge that it is revoked or expired or that the account lacks enough money to pay for the items charged; and 3) sells goods or services to someone else with knowledge that the credit or debit card being used was illegally obtained or is being used without authorization.
Almost every state has a disorderly conduct law that makes it a crime to be drunk in public, to “disturb the peace”, or to loiter in certain areas. Many types of obnoxious or unruly conduct may fit the definition of disorderly conduct, as such statutes are often used as “catch-all” crimes. Police may use a disorderly conduct charge to keep the peace when a person is behaving in a disruptive manner, but presents no serious public danger.
Domestic violence refers to physical harm inflicted on one member of a household or family, by another member of the same household or family (usually between spouses). Domestic violence (sometimes called “spousal abuse”) usually involves repetitive physical and psychological abuse, and a “cycle of violence”. Specific crimes charged vary based on 1) severity of the victim’s injuries, 2) whether a minor was present, and 3) whether a protective or restraining order was violated.
Drug Cultivation and Manufacture
Drug cultivation and manufacturing laws make it a crime 1) to grow, produce, and possess certain plants and other naturally occurring elements used in the production of unlawful controlled substances, such as cannabis seeds and marijuana plants; or 2) to produce illegal controlled substances like cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, and Ecstasy (MDMA), which require use of certain chemicals and laboratory equipment in their production. Federal and state drug cultivation laws vary according to drug type and the amount produced.
Drug Distribution and Drug Trafficking
Drug distribution/trafficking laws penalize the selling, transportation, and illegal import into the United States of unlawful controlled substances such as marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, “club drugs,” and heroin. Federal and state drug distribution/trafficking laws and punishments vary according to drug type, amount, geographic area of distribution, and whether minors were sold to or targeted. Drug distribution/trafficking laws can implicate a single individual or a broad ring of people involved in organized illegal drug activity.
Federal and state drug possession laws make it a crime to willfully possess illegal controlled substances such as marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, “club drugs,” and heroin. These laws also criminalize the possession of “precursor” chemicals used in drug cultivation and manufacturing, as well as certain accessories related to drug use. Drug possession laws vary according to drug type, amount, and geographic area of the offense. Possession of small quantities may be deemed “simple” possession, while possession of large amounts may result in a charge of presumed “possession with intent to distribute.”
Embezzlement is defined in most states as theft/larceny of assets (money or property) by a person in a position of trust or responsibility over those assets. Embezzlement typically occurs in the employment and corporate settings.
Most states define extortion as the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force, or threat of 1) violence, 2) property damage, 3) harm to reputation, or 4) unfavorable government action. While usually viewed as a form of theft/larceny, extortion differs from robbery in that the threat in question does not pose an imminent physical danger to the victim.
The crime of forgery generally refers to the making of a fake document, the changing of an existing document, or the making of a signature without authorization. Documents that can be the object of forgery include contracts, identification cards, and legal certificates. Most states require that forgery be done with the intent to commit fraud or theft/larceny.
A civil rights violation may become a crime if it involves the use (or threat of use) of force. Hate crimes are intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability. Below you will find information on hate crimes and prosecution of civil rights violations, as well as links to resources from the federal government.
Indecent exposure laws in most states make it a crime to purposefully display one’s genitals in public, causing others to be alarmed or offended. Indecent exposure is often committed for the sexual gratification of the offender, and may reach the level of a sexual assault if any physical contact is made.
Identity theft laws in most states make it a crime to misuse another person’s identifying information — whether personal or financial. Such data (including social security numbers, credit history, and PIN numbers) is often acquired through 1) the offender’s unlawful access to information from government and financial entities, or 2) lost or stolen mail, wallets and purses, identification, and credit or debit cards.
Insurance fraud occurs most often when an insured individual or entity makes a false or exaggerated insurance claim, seeking compensation for injuries or losses that were not actually suffered. Insurance fraud can also be committed upon customers, through 1) the sale of unlicensed or bogus insurance coverage to unsuspecting clients, or 2) an insurance broker or agent’s diversion or theft of insurance premiums paid by clients.
Under federal and state law, kidnapping is commonly defined as the taking of a person from one place to another against his or her will, or the confining of a person to a controlled space. Some kidnapping laws require that the taking or confining be for an unlawful purpose, such as extortion or the facilitation of a crime. A parent without legal custody rights may be charged with kidnapping for taking his or her own child, in certain circumstances.
Manslaughter – Involuntary
Involuntary manslaughter usually refers to an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or criminal negligence, or from an unlawful act that is a misdemeanor or low-level felony (such as DUI). The usual distinction from voluntary manslaughter is that involuntary manslaughter (sometimes called “criminally negligent homicide”) is a crime in which the victim’s death is unintended.
Manslaughter – Voluntary
Voluntary manslaughter is commonly defined as an intentional killing in which the offender had no prior intent to kill, such as a killing that occurs in the “heat of passion.” The circumstances leading to the killing must be the kind that would cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed; otherwise, the killing may be charged as a first-degree or second-degree murder.
Money laundering statutes make it a crime to transfer money derived from almost any criminal activity (including organized crime, white-collar offenses, and drug transactions) into seemingly legitimate channels, in an attempt to disguise the origin of the funds.
Murder – 1st Degree
In most states, first-degree murder is defined as an unlawful killing that is both willful and premeditated, meaning that it was committed after planning or “lying in wait” for the victim. Most states also adhere to a legal concept known as the “felony murder rule,” under which a person commits first-degree murder if any death (even an accidental one) results from the commission of certain violent felonies — usually arson, burglary, kidnapping, rape, and robbery.
Murder – 2nd Degree
Second-degree murder is ordinarily defined as 1) an intentional killing that is not premeditated or planned, nor committed in a reasonable “heat of passion” or 2) a killing caused by dangerous conduct and the offender’s obvious lack of concern for human life. Second-degree murder may best be viewed as the middle ground between first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
Perjury statutes in many states make it a crime to knowingly lie after taking an oath to tell the truth, such as when testifying in court or communicating through certain legal documents. The falsehood must usually be material to the matter at issue, though perjury can also be committed by simply signing a document with the knowledge that it contains false assertions.
Prostitution laws make it a crime in most states to offer, agree to, or engage in a sexual act for compensation. Depending upon applicable state law, the stages of a typical prostitution “transaction” can involve charges against the provider of services (for “prostitution”), the customer paying for the services (for “solicitation of prostitution”), and any middleman (for “pandering” or “pimping”).
Pyramid Schemes – Ponzi Schemes
Pyramid schemes are a criminal form of investment fraud in which a large return on a small amount of money is promised, if the initial investor convinces new recruits to invest their own money in turn. The “pyramid” is built on the belief that others will continue to add their own money into the scheme. But once additional investors become scarce, the pyramid collapses and large amounts of money can be lost. Increasingly, pyramid schemes are conducted via the Internet and e-mail.
Racketeering / RICO
Federal and state racketeering, profiteering, and RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization) laws make it illegal for criminal organizations to profit from any legitimate business operations. Many of these laws allow for the confiscation and seizure of the criminal organization’s legitimate enterprise assets, and are typically used against known “organized crime” groups. The goal is to cripple the operation financially, and cut off sources of cash that support ongoing criminal activity.
The crime of rape (or “first-degree sexual assault” in some states) generally refers to non-consensual sexual intercourse that is committed by physical force, threat of injury, or other duress. A lack of consent can include the victim’s inability to say “no” to intercourse, due to the effects of drugs or alcohol. Rape can occur when the offender and victim have a pre-existing relationship (sometimes called “date rape”), or even when the offender is the victim’s spouse.
Under a variation known as “statutory rape,” some states make it unlawful for an adult to engage in sexual intercourse with a person who has not reached the age of consent (usually 18 years of age).
Many states define robbery as theft/larceny of property or money through the offender’s use of physical force or fear against a victim. Where a deadly weapon such as a gun is used or the victim suffers injury, the robbery may be charged as “armed” or “aggravated.” Unlike burglary, the crime of robbery almost always requires the presence of a victim who suffers actual injury, or is threatened with harm.
Securities fraud can be committed when 1) a corporate officer or director makes a material misrepresentation, withholding, or distortion related to stock information (usually pertaining to value), 2) an officer or director unlawfully discloses confidential information related to a stock, and 3) an individual or entity acts upon the unlawful disclosure of certain confidential stock information.
Securities fraud is usually governed by both federal and state law, and legal action can be initiated by private investors, or by a government agency such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape.
Stalking laws in most states pertain to a relatively new crime involving a clear pattern of conduct in which the offender follows, harasses, or threatens another person, putting that person in fear for his or her safety. An individual may be charged with stalking regardless of any pre-existing relationship with the victim. Stalking victims can range from celebrities to former spouses who have obtained a protective order against their ex.
Tax Evasion / Tax Fraud
Tax evasion/fraud laws make it a federal or state crime to purposefully avoid the payment of federal, state, or local taxes, whether those taxes are a personal obligation or that of a business entity. A tax evasion/fraud conviction can result in penalties such as fines, incarceration, and asset forfeiture.
Laws related to telemarketing fraud commonly pertain to various deceptive schemes directed at consumers via unsolicited telephone calls, promising prize winnings and large cash windfalls that are non-existent or fraudulent. Telemarketing fraud schemes are often targeted toward the elderly.
Theft / Larceny
Theft/larceny is typically defined as the taking of almost anything of value without the consent of the owner, with the intent to permanently deprive him or her of the value of the property taken. Most states recognize degrees of theft, such as “grand” or “petty,” which usually relate to the value of the property taken.
Wire fraud crimes refer broadly to any fraudulent or deceitful scheme to secure money or property, committed or aided through the use of interstate “wires” — meaning television, radio, telephone, or computer modem. Almost all instances of wire fraud are considered federal crimes, due to their potential interstate effects.