Basic Idea Behind US Law – Chapter One – General Philosophy and Your Rights As an American Citizen

Crime–conduct that unjustifiably and inexcusably inflicts or threatens substantial harm to individual or public interest.

The words, unjustifiably and inexcusably, may not seem like much, but in those 25 letters lie nearly all of the intrigue behind criminal law. A man may be caught red-handed in the middle of a murder, but the battle is only halfway over. If his defense can show his actions were justified in some way, or excused for some reason, he will be found innocent.

The law states there must be two things present for a person to be criminally liable, mens rea and actus reus. Actus reus is the action of the offender. Mens rea is the evil intent. The law states any child under the age of 7 does not have the mental ability to form mens rea, so he can perform the actus reus of taking a human life, but because he is not capable of mens rea, he will not be criminally responsible. On a similar note, any person can have the mens rea for murder, but if they do not follow through with the actus reus of taking a life, they have committed no crime.

Crimes fall into two categories, felonies and misdemeanors. A felony is considered more evil in its nature, and being charged with one is a serious matter, the consequences of which can be a real pain to overcome. If you are not imprisoned, you will have probation for a couple of years, and an unhappy Corey check for the next decade. Ten years after your last day in court, not the day of the crime.

A misdemeanor is not as serious, but it is punishable by imprisonment for up to a year, though it is highly unlikely to serve jail time on a simple misdemeanor unless you have been a real menace to society. More often than not, misdemeanors are statute offenses, actions which the government prohibits, but public policy does not see as immoral.

If you consciously make a decision to commit a crime you should prepare yourself to be liable for your actions. As an American citizen, you are legally responsible for yourself and will be held to the law, whether or not you agree with it. You may feel as if you have the right to put whatever you want into your body, but the government has decided you cannot use cocaine, and you certainly can’t sell it, and they don’t give a damn about your personal convictions. Say what you want, but most of the country agrees with the government, and one of the deals you make in being an American citizen is to behave yourself according to the wish of the majority. If you don’t like it, go live up in the hills where nobody will bother you.

Being criminally liable means being punished for as much as you were culpable, or responsible. Americans are expected to take their consequences, whether those be punishment or reward. In order to commit a crime, a person must commit an offense that is already defined as a crime, and has a punishment spelled out. Although the country went through an optimistic phase with the idea of rehabilitation, favor has swung to the side of good old retribution, with a smattering of deterrence thrown in for good measure. It is the intention of the law to get back at the offender in a way that will keep him or her off the streets and make them never want to commit a crime again.

Unfortunately, the law is not perfect because the written word is not definite, like numbers. Every person in the world gets the same idea when presented with the number 4; one man can imagine four goldfish, and another four gold coins, but they are both going to understand exactly what is meant by 4. Words are not so concrete, which is kind of the beauty behind the law because it brings about questions of morality, and can be fluid and changing.

Laws suck when you are being held to them, but we are all happy they are there. The government is willing to return the favor, and is subject to the Constitution and other laws it sets forth for itself. In almost all proceedings, the benefit of the doubt goes to the individual and not the government. America is a merciful society, so punishment is set according to the principle of utility- meaning there is a perfect punishment that inflicts the minimal amount of pain and still prevents the crime. It serves no purpose to send a minor criminal to jail for years. Not only does it cost a lot of money, but it can make an offender more dangerous.

Another effort in fairness is the idea of precedent. The courts want the public to know just what it can expect, and goes along with the idea that staying on the beaten path is always best. Nobody likes surprises. Of course, this changes, and laws are changed with the times and public policy, but these cases are rare. If you feel somewhere along the line your civil rights have been violated, you are probably right, but no system is perfect. If you truly did not do anything wrong, don’t take a plea, and there is a good chance you will be found not guilty.
Your Rights as an American Citizen.

Do not assume the system doesn’t work because some cop on the beat denied you your free speech. Cops are human, just like everybody else, and they have bad days and make mistakes. On the whole, judges are no fools, and don’t believe for one second everything that comes out of an officer’s mouth, but so many defendants don’t use their heads when dealing with the court system. Mistake number one is treating the police and court officials as if they belong to the same group and taking out frustration with police treatment on the court system. When a defendant gets angry, gives up, or loses his cool, he is denying himself his own rights, and should blame nobody else.

The United States of America runs its government with a constitutional democracy. That is, the majority rules, but it must fall within the boundaries of the Constitution. These are your rights as an American Citizen:
Freedom of speech- We all know this; Americans have the right to express themselves in any way except if their words or actions are…

Obscene- although what may be obscene to one may not be so to another, and unless the expression so shocks the conscience of most reasonable people, it probably won’t be considered obscene. Child pornography is an example of this; every reasonable person on the planet can agree it is obscene and should not be protected under the First Amendment.

Profanity- this is also a matter of opinion, but for the most part, we are not free to throw the F-bomb around wherever we so choose. The law has to balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the many. Parents have the right to expect they can bring their children to the park without having to listen to some jerk swearing and acting obnoxiously.

Libel and slander- Americans can’t spread lies to the detriment of another person. Libel is when a person writes a ruinous lie about another, and slander is a spoken untruth. The best defense to either charge is the truth, and a person is allowed to say or write anything about another, as long as it is all true.

Fighting words-if a reasonable person would be so angered by the expression that he would want to fight the expresser, the speech is not protected.

Clear and present danger-A person can’t decide to play a practical joke and yell, “Fire!” in a packed building because the speech could potentially cause harm in the ensuing panic.

Freedom of speech covers any gesture, word, or action that is meant to convey or express an attitude or opinion. This includes objects like bumper stickers, expressive t-shirts, or even the burning of a flag or a cross. You may not like the garbage put forth by certain hate groups, but freedom of speech can’t be infringed upon just because the message is unpopular.

Right to Privacy- the Constitution does not specifically entitle Americans to this right, but the Supreme Court decided it was so fundamental the founding fathers felt no need to specify. The precedent setting case was about a group of married couples who sued the State of Connecticut for their right to use birth control.

No cruel and unusual punishment- the punishment should fit the crime, and should not be barbaric.

The death penalty is constantly undergoing scrutiny because of this, and though America does permit states to decide whether to implement capital punishment, the death must be instant and the body cannot be mutilated. Louisiana had an interesting bout with the Supreme Court when it sentenced a child rapist to death. The Supreme Court allowed Louisiana to condone a person to death for the rape of a child under 12, but only because of the long term mental and physical effects this particular crime has on the victim, the family, and the community as a whole. Usually, a person is not sentenced to death unless loss of life is a direct result of his or her crime.

Principle of proportionality- the punishment must fit the crime, although this is not written in stone, either, and the idea of proportionality changes with changing public policy. In 1989 it was legal to put a mentally retarded person to death, but in 2002 the Supreme Court reexamined the question because 19 states had made it illegal.

Death for juveniles- another policy change. Courts hate snuffing out young life, and even young adults are given consideration.

Three-strikes laws-Felons who fall into this category have tried to argue it is unconstitutional on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment, but no dice. The Supreme Court feels as if states have a good reason for implementing this law into practice.

Due process-The government can’t run hairy scary doing whatever it wants. There are rules and regulations that must be followed. The Miranda rights, and all of those other “technicalities,” fall into this category.

Equal protection- all people must be treated alike, and be given the same fair shot as everyone else. Of course, a lifelong criminal is not going to be given the same break as a first time offender, but all lifelong criminals should get the same treatment, as well as all first time offenders.

This does not include status offenses, which are offenses made illegal because of a person’s age, or other standing in society. Technically, it could be seen as unconstitutional that the drinking age is 21, but the Constitution allows for states to impede upon the rights of a group of people if the state can prove it has a good reason for doing so.

Ex post facto- This always swings in favor of the defendant, and goes something like this…
The government cannot make retroactive laws. All of the people who committed an act before it was made illegal cannot be charged with it later on. Further, if a person committed an act that was illegal when he did it, but went to court after it was legalized, he would be entitled to the status that best helped his case.

Let’s say the government abolished the insanity plea; all of the people who committed their crimes when the insanity plea was still available would be able to plead insanity. The defendant is entitled to any defense that was available at the time of the crime. This means that a defendant has the best defense that is legally available to him whether at the time of the crime, or at the time of trial, whichever is best for the defendant. If you are going to trial for possession of marijuana and marijuana is decriminalized, you will get the benefit even if you were charged before it was decriminalized.

If the government decided to all of a sudden get tough on a particular crime and doubled the punishment, the defendant would only be held to the punishment that was in place on the date of the crime, but if a punishment were cut in half after the crime was committed, the defendant would get the benefit of the lesser punishment, also. The benefit always sides with the defendant.

Though these are your rights as an American citizen, it is up to you to make sure you receive them. Almost every person in America, especially criminals, have been denied their civil rights at some time. It may be difficult to prove, not to mention expensive, but with the right attorney it can be done. The trick is to act composed, admit your faults, and calmly state your case. If you feel as if you were justified in your actions, or you did nothing illegal, do not take a plea bargain and then proclaim your innocence later. When you take a plea you are admitting guilt and you can never take it back. If you are truly innocent, and the crime is not too serious, chances are the state would much rather drop the thing instead of waste time with trial. The system is set up to wear the defendant down by making him show up in court so many times he will finally just plea out. After all, the DA has to be there, anyways. Another tactic is threatening jail or other serious punishment if the defendant takes the case to trial. It is in the best interest of the state to encourage pleas, and many an innocent person has fallen for the trap. Those with familiarity with the court system would never allow their innocent child to take a plea, and would demand their rights every step of the way. All others should follow suit.

So many people, especially juveniles, show up in court looking as if they just rolled out of bed and expect to be taken seriously. If you are in a court of law you should dress and act accordingly. Bring a notebook and write things down and try your best to act like a respectable member of society. The old saying, “you can’t judge by its cover,” doesn’t apply in court, and judges are pros and very difficult to fool. They can tell at a glance if you are an avid drug user, a wife abuser, or just a loser, and the better you clean yourself up, the better things will go for you.

Another mistake: loud sighing, or other signs of exasperation. If you are a defendant and a witness on the stand is blatantly lying against you, the worst thing you can do is yell, “Liar!” You will come off as if you have no control, and hurt your case far more than anyone else can. You want to appear in control at all times. Another note on lying: You shouldn’t, but if you do, by all means stick to it. Once you admit to having lied anything else that comes out of your mouth is suspect.