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Introductory video for the Criminal Law section of Nolo’s website (www.nolo.com).

If you are new to criminal law, or have the remotest suspicion that you may be accused of a crime, there are three things you need to know. This video discusses them.

Introductory information on the basics of criminal law from FindLaw.

Frequently Asked Questions in Criminal Law

General material on criminal law may be found on:

Nolo Press – Criminal Law

Findlaw – Criminal Law

Expert Law – Criminal Law

American Bar Association, Division for Public Education – Criminal Law

Legal Information Institute – Law About – Criminal Procedure

Legal Information Institute – White Collar Crime


How do I get someone out of jail?

It depends on why the person is in jail in the first place. In most situations, the quickest way to free someone from jail is by bonding him or her out. If a person is charged with a state crime, he can be bonded out by a professional bondsman. A professional bondsman has entered into an agreement with the County of incarceration to guarantee the appearance of the accused at future court dates. The County will release the accused on a bondsman’s guaranty. A professional bondsman normally charges 10-20% of the bail amount for his service. You can avoid the bondman’s charge by paying the bail in cash. A cash bond may be posted be aware, however, that if you post a cash bond, it may take the County Sheriff several weeks after the case is over to return the money you have paid.


Do the Police Need a Warrant to Arrest Me?

While it may seem surprising, in most cases the police do not need a warrant arrest you. It all comes down to probable cause — if the police have probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime, they can arrest you without going to a judge for a warrant first. In getting a warrant, law enforcement officers have to convince a judge that there is probable cause to make an arrest; if an arrest was made without a warrant, the police must later convince a judge that there was sufficient probable cause at the time the arrest was made.

So what constitutes probable cause? In general, probable cause exists when law enforcement have more than a “bare suspicion” that a crime has been committed, and that the person they want to arrest has committed the crime. The police don’t actually have to witness the crime; they just have to honestly believe it is more likely than not that the suspect was involved. Once of the most common bases for a warrantless arrest is where a witness to a crime gives a description of a perpetrator and the police see someone fitting that description nearby. In most cases, that is sufficient probable cause to justify an arrest for a felony offense. The same does not hold true for misdemeanors, however — an officer cannot make a warrantless arrest of someone for a minor crime (such as shoplifting) without having personally witnessed the crime.

Generally, police need an arrest warrant if they are planning to arrest a person in his or her home. This is not a blanket rule, however, and police can make a warrantless arrest in a suspect’s home if “exigent circumstances” exist. Exigent circumstances can include the following situations: when the police have chased a fleeing suspect into his home; when the police believe that someone might be in danger inside the house; or if a person (not necessarily the suspect) answers the door and lets the police come inside. In any of those cases, an officer may later justify the warrantless arrest even if made inside a suspect’s home.

If a judge later rules that there was insufficient probable cause for the police to arrest you, there remains little you can do. An experienced attorney may argue that any evidence gathered during the course of an unlawful arrest should be inadmissible during trial, but consequences of an unlawful arrest are evidentiary in nature.


Are all illegal drugs treated equally when it comes to punishing drug dealers?

No, the punishment for drug crimes depends not only on the criminal conduct of the offender but also on the classification of the drug. Federal sentencing guidelines begin with forty-three base offense levels and add or subtract levels depending on certain specified criteria. The higher the offense level, the harsher the sentence.

The base offense level under the federal guidelines differs for different drugs and for different amounts of the same drug. For instance, if the conviction is for the crime of manufacturing 300 kilograms of heroin, the base offense level is forty-two. However, if the conviction is for manufacturing 300 kilograms of cocaine, the base offense level is thirty-eight. Crack is a form of cocaine and listed on the same schedule of controlled substances. However, the quantities of crack needed to impose a certain sentence are much less than the quantity of powdered cocaine. For example, a person convicted of the crime of delivering 5 grams of crack will receive a sentence in the federal system of five to forty years. To receive that same sentence, a person would have to be convicted of delivering 500 grams of powdered cocaine.


What is the role of the federal government in criminal law?

Crime has long been considered the concern of state government. States are authorized to protect their citizens from criminal activity by prosecuting criminals. States are also authorized to determine what constitutes a crime statutorily (through the legislature) and through common law. The federal government, on the other hand, has limited jurisdiction and must link any crimes it prosecutes to its powers under the Constitution. The most commonly used powers to support federal criminal legislation are the commerce power, the taxing power, and the postal power. While Congress has used these powers all along to define crimes, there has been an explosion of federally created crimes in the last half of the 20th century. Most of the laws controlling white-collar crime, like the RICO Act and the Victims and Witnesses Protection Act have been passed since 1950.

In addition, Congress has become increasingly involved in the “war on drugs” with the creation of various drug statutes. Due to the severity of the penalties, often, local prosecutors prefer to have drug charges prosecuted in federal court rather than file state charges. Most federal laws have as their rationale that the particular crime addressed needs a uniform response nationwide, and due to the nature of drug crimes (particularly distribution), it is difficult to prosecute drug crimes on a state-by-state basis.

Examples of successful federal criminal legislation are the federal gun laws and federal computer laws. The federal gun laws provide uniformity and the federal computer laws make it possible to punish Internet crime.

The U.S. Constitution has always played a role in criminal law because it defines important individual rights that must be preserved even in a state prosecution involving a state crime. The Constitution guarantees a right to a trial by jury in open court, the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to remain silent (on grounds of self-incrimination), the presumption of innocence, the right to be represented by a lawyer, and the right to be free of cruel or unusual punishment. States are required to pay for attorneys for indigent offenders, and federal agencies provide oversight to state prisons to ensure compliance with these constitutional requirements.


What is the difference between probation and parole?

Probation is a criminal sentence; parole is one way of completing a criminal sentence of incarceration. In most jurisdictions, first-time offenders are considered for probation, particularly if their offense was nonviolent. A person placed on probation is typically given a jail or prison sentence that is suspended as long as the person abides by the terms and conditions of probation. Common terms require the person to contact a probation officer once a week and to work, go to school, or look for work. Other terms can include required attendance at alcohol treatment or narcotic-abuse programs and educational classes on such subjects as anger management or good driving. The length of probation and its terms are enumerated at the sentencing and once the person has completed the terms of probation, he or she is free of court supervision.

Typically, an offender has been sentenced to an indeterminate or range of years in prison. After the offender has served the minimum amount of time authorized, the parole board decides if the offender is ready to be released from incarceration to finish out the sentence on parole. Parole boards consider the nature and seriousness of the crime, the views of the victim, the progress the offender made in prison, how crowded the prison is, and whether the offender has a someplace to go in the community. If parole is granted, the offender will have to abide by terms and conditions similar to those for probation for a specified period of time. If he or she completes the parole period, the criminal sentence is discharged.

Both probation and parole can be revoked if the offender commits another crime or seriously violates one of the conditions of release. The revocation proceeding requires written notice to the offender, an opportunity to explain and call witnesses, an impartial decision-maker, and a written decision stating the reasons for revocation. If parole is revoked, the parolee goes back to prison and serves the remainder of his or her sentence in jail or prison.


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