Types of Crimes
The field of criminal law divides crimes into several categories. The category of crime dictates the type of criminal act, the mental state, and the degree of punishment. Three broad categories of crimes are crimes against the person, crimes against property, and white-collar crimes.
The categories of crimes are further divided by the designated punishment for the crime. The categories of punishment are felony, misdemeanor, and petty misdemeanor. Each represents a different category of punishment.
Felonies are the most serious crimes. A felony is any crime that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. The seriousness of a felony crime is indicated by the possible sentence for the offense.
Some felonies are capital crimes — crimes that are punishable by the death penalty. Other felonies are punishable by sentences up to life imprisonment, up to ten years' imprisonment, and up to five years' imprisonment.
Crimes that are punishable by incarceration of one year or less are misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are regarded as less serious offenses that do not require time in prison — nearly all misdemeanor sentences are served in a county or local jail. In many states, any crime that is not specifically categorized as a felony is treated as a misdemeanor.
Petty misdemeanors are offenses that do not require incarceration. These offenses are usually punishable by a fine. Petty misdemeanors are often administrative offenses, such as failure to acquire a necessary permit. Since petty misdemeanors do not require incarceration, there is no right to a jury trial for these offenses.
Conviction of a felony entails the loss of certain rights, such as the right to vote and may be a permanent bar to certain kinds of employment. Previous felony convictions can be used when considering enhanced sentencing options. The difference between a felony and a misdemeanor is often a critical point in plea bargain negotiations.
Crimes Against Persons
Crimes against the person are the most serious crimes because the offense involves physical harm to another person. Crimes against the person are also called violent crimes for this reason. The great majority of crimes against the person are felonies.
Homicide is an obvious crime against the person. The death of another person, whether caused by recklessness, the heat of the moment, or premeditation, is the ultimate act of violence. The differences between the degrees of homicide — first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter — are differences in the intent of the defendant. The greater the degree of intent, the greater the degree of punishment.
Of course, aggravating circumstances have an effect on the perceived seriousness of the crime as well. A defendant convicted of homicide may face enhanced penalties if the homicide involved illegal drugs or the use of a gun. The federal government may seek the death penalty if the victim of the homicide was a federal law enforcement officer.
Other crimes against the person include robbery, sexual assault, and assault and battery. These crimes typically require that the offense use a degree of force or that the victim be placed in fear of physical harm. Each crime requires a violent act or the threat of a violent act.
When a defendant is charged with a crime, the charge is presumed to include all of the “lesser” offenses encompassed by the act. A charge of second degree murder requires a specific mental state. If the prosecution cannot prove that mental state, it may be able to prove the mental state needed to establish the crime of manslaughter. The prosecution need not prove the elements of each crime — the lesser offense is included in the greater one.
Crimes Against Property
Crimes against property do not usually involve force or fear of harm. The criminal act is the act of damaging or attempting to gain the property of another. Crimes that damage the property of another include trespass, vandalism, and arson. Crimes that attempt to gain the property of another are burglary, larceny, theft, and forgery.
Crimes that damage the property of another may involve violent acts, but because there is no physical injury to a person, they are not classified with other violent crimes. The intent of these crimes is the damage to property, even if harm to a person occurs. For example, a person who willfully and maliciously burns a building owned by another has committed the crime of arson. If the owner is trapped in the building or is killed trying to extinguish the fire, the defendant may also be guilty of a crime against the person.
The distinction between crimes of violence and crimes against property can seem artificial. A homicide need not involve physical violence — as in the case of a poisoning. By the same token, a crime against property may be extremely violent, as when a burglar uses force to break into a locked house. The difference lies in the threat of physical harm to the victim, not the physical act that constitutes the offense.
Crimes that attempt to gain the property of another are also distinguished from crimes against the person by the lack of physical harm. A robbery has the purpose of gaining the property of another, but is a crime against the person because it requires placing the victim in fear of physical harm.
Larceny — the wrongful taking of the property of another — however, does not require physical harm to the victim. In fact, it is possible to commit larceny without the victim's knowledge that the act has taken place. Other crimes against property that do not require any knowledge on the part of the victim include forgery and obtaining goods by false pretenses.
White-collar crimes are a special category of crimes against property. These crimes are usually business-oriented. Most white-collar crimes involve the use of a business position or occupation to commit the crime. Many, but not all, are in furtherance of some business interest. This does not mean that the offender does not receive personal gain, but personal gain is seldom the primary motive for these crimes.
The business scandals of the last few years have made the public well aware of the many varieties of white-collar crime. It includes insider trading as in the Imclone scandal and accounting fraud as in the Enron scandal. It also includes embezzlement, bribery, and wire and mail fraud. White-collar crimes are typically complex and difficult to prove.
Convictions in these cases usually rely on a combination of documents and the testimony of participants. Because white-collar crime is not considered a violent crime, offenders are often sentenced to serve time in minimum-security prisons.