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 a business. Many states recognize differing degrees of arson, based on such factors as whether the building was occupied and whether insurance fraud was intended.
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 serious 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.
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.
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 order was violated.
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 murder. Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. In the heat of the moment, Dan picks up a golf club from next to the bed and strikes Victor in the head, killing him instantly.
Involuntary manslaughter usually refers to an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or criminal negligence (such as reckless driving), 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. Dan comes home to find Victor in bed with Dan’s wife. Distraught, Dan heads to a local bar to drown his sorrows. After having five drinks, Dan jumps into his car and drives down the street at twice the posted speed limit, accidentally hitting and killing a pedestrian.
Murder: First 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. Dan comes home to find Victor in bed with Dan’s wife. Three days later, Dan waits behind a tree near Victor’s front door. When Victor comes out of the house, Dan shoots and kills him. 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. Dan and Connie rob Victor’s liquor store, but as they are fleeing, Victor shoots and kills Dan. Under the felony murder rule, Connie can be charged with first-degree murder for Dan’s death.
Murder: Second degree
Second-degree murder is ordinarily defined as 1) an intentional killing that is not premeditated or planned, 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. Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. At a stoplight the next day, Dan sees Victor riding in the passenger seat of a nearby car. Dan pulls out a gun and fires three shots into the car, missing Victor but killing the driver of the car.
Many states define robbery as theft of property or money through physical force or intimidation. 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 and the offender’s use of force or fear. Dan approaches Victor from behind, demanding Victor’s wallet while pressing a hard object into his back. Fearing that Dan has a gun, Victor gives up his wallet. If Dan did use a gun, or if Victor suffered an injury, the charge would likely be elevated to “armed” or “aggravated” robbery.
The crime of rape 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. In other words, the existence of a marital relationship does not deprive the victim of the right to say no to sexual intercourse. 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). Some states refer to rape as “first-degree sexual assault.”
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.
Driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws make it unlawful to operate a vehicle while 1) impaired by the effects of alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription medication, or 2) intoxicated at a level beyond set DUI/DWI standards, such as blood-alcohol count (BAC). Many states carry “implied consent” laws requiring that licensed drivers submit to a chemical test if suspected of DUI or DWI. Costs and criminal penalties associated with DUI/DWI vary according to the circumstances of the offense, but license suspension, fines, and jail time are typical consequences.
Drug Cultivation and Manufacturing
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 crop type and amount. During a legal search of Dan’s apartment, police find cannabis seeds, high-powered lamps, and remnants of marijuana plants. Dan can be charged with violating drug cultivation and manufacturing laws.
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.”
Bribery is the offer or acceptance of anything of value in exchange for influence on a government/public official or employee. Bribes can take the form of gifts or payments of money in exchange for favorable treatment, such as awards of government contracts. In most situations, both the person offering the bribe and the person accepting can be charged with bribery.
Credit Card Fraud
Credit card fraud includes 1) fraudulently obtaining, taking, signing, using,selling, buying, or forging someone else’s credit or debit card or card information; 2) using one’s 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) selling goods or services to someone with knowledge that the credit or debit card being used was illegally obtained or is being used without authorization.
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. While working as a bank manager, Dan alters customer deposit receipts and account information, then siphons bank money into his own pocket.
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.
Identity theft laws in most states make it a crime to misuse another person’s identifying information — whether personal or financial. Such data is often acquired 1) by the offender’s unlawful access to information from government and financial entities, or 2) through lost or stolen mail, identification, and credit or debit cards.
Insurance fraud can occur through 1) the sale of unlicensed or bogus insurance coverage to unsuspecting clients, 2) an insurance broker or agent’s diversion or theft of insurance premiums paid by clients, or 3) false or exaggerated insurance claims filed by insureds seeking compensation for injuries or losses that were not actually suffered.
Money laundering statutes make it a crime to transfer money derived from almost any criminal activity (organized crime, white-collar offenses, and drug transactions) into seemingly legitimate channels, in an attempt to disguise the origin of the funds.
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. Once additional investors become scarce, the pyramid collapses and money is lost. Increasingly, pyramid schemes are conducted via the Internet and e-mail.
Federal and state RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organization) laws make it illegal for criminal organizations to profit from any legitimate business operations. RICO laws allow for the confiscation and seizure of the criminal organization’s legitimate enterprise assets, and such laws 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.
Securities fraud laws typically require both 1) a corporate insider’s key misrepresentation, withholding, or distortion of stock information (usually pertaining to value), and 2) the victim’s reliance on that representation. Securities fraud is governed by 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 criminal prostitution transaction can involve charges against the provider of services (“prostitution”), the customer paying for the services (“solicitation of prostitution”), and any middleman (“pandering” or “pimping”).
Historically, the crime of sodomy has been defined as oral or anal sex between two people of the same or opposite sex. Recently, state laws criminalizing consensual sodomy have come under fire in the court system, and many such laws have been repealed by legislatures. Non-consensual sodomy by force is a form of rape or sexual assault.
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 against a person, typically there is no victim present during a burglary. Dan enters Victor’s boathouse through an open window, intending to steal Victor’s boat. Finding the boat is gone, Dan returns home. Though he took nothing, Dan has committed burglary.
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. Dan goes to Victor’s place of business and demands monthly payment from Victor for the business’s “protection” from vandalism and after-hours theft. Fearing that he or his business will suffer harm otherwise, Victor agrees to pay Dan.
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. Dan goes to Victor’s music store, puts two CDs in his pocket, and walks out the door. Dan can be charged with theft. Had Dan stolen Victor’s car from the parking lot, Dan would likely be charged with grand theft.
Aiding and Abetting/Accessory
A criminal charge of aiding and abetting or being an accessory can usually be brought against one who helps in the commission of any crime, though legal distinctions vary by state. Although a person charged with aiding and abetting or being an accessory is usually not present when the crime itself is committed, he or she has knowledge of the crime, and may assist in its commission through advice, actions, or financial support. Depending on the level of involvement, the offender’s participation in the crime may rise to the level of conspiracy. Andy draws a floor plan of a bank, knowing of Dan’s intention to rob it. After Dan commits the robbery, Alice agrees to let him store the stolen money at her house. Both Andy and Alice can be charged with aiding and abetting, or acting as accessories to the robbery.
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. Andy, Dan, and Alice plan a bank robbery. They 1) visit the bank first to assess security, 2) pool their money and buy a gun together, and 3) write a demand letter. All three can be charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, regardless of whether it is actually committed.
Computer crime laws in many states prohibit a person from performing certain acts without authorization, including 1) accessing a computer, system,or network; 2) modifying, damaging, using, disclosing, copying, or taking programs or data; 3) introducing a virus or other contaminant into a computer system; 4) using a computer in a scheme to defraud; 5) interfering with someone else’s computer access or use; 6) using encryption in aid of a crime; 7) falsifying e-mail source information; and 8) stealing an information service from a provider.
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. Other conduct also may fit the definition of disorderly conduct. Police often use the charge to keep the peace when a person is behaving in a disruptive manner, but presents no serious public danger.
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.
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. While completing a sworn affidavit during child support proceedings in family court, Dan purposefully understates his monthly income by $2000, signs the document, and files it with the judge’s clerk.
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. Dan spends a number of hours each week harassing Victoria, his former girlfriend, by following her home from work, sending her threatening emails, and calling her in the middle of the night.