What is a crime?

A crime is a wrongful act that violates the norms or laws of society in which the perpetrator (if found guilty) receives some type of punishment. The word comes from the Latin word "crimen," which means accusation or guilt.

What distinguishes criminal law from civil law?

In criminal law, society—in the form of a government—brings an action against an individual for wrongful conduct. The purpose of a criminal action is punishment or societal retribution against those who have violated laws. In civil law, one party sues another for monetary damages or some other form of noncriminal relief. The purpose behind most civil law actions is compensation.

An individual's liberty is at stake in a criminal action brought by a government. In civil law, one party sues another, seeking not confinement but usually monetary damages. For example, State v. Hudson is a hypothetical criminal case where the state brings criminal charges against Hudson. Jones v. Hudson is a hypothetical civil case in which the party named Jones sues the party named Hudson. Criminal law cases are governed by rules of criminal procedure, while civil law cases are governed by the rules of civil procedure.

Perhaps the most important difference between criminal and civil law concerns the different burdens of proof. In a criminal case the prosecution has to prove that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt—a very high standard. In a civil case the normal standard is simply preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not.

LegalSpeak: What classic definition of "beyond a reasonable doubt" did Chief Justice Shaw provide?

The classic definition of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" was given by Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw in Massachusetts in the 1850 case Commonwealth v. Webster. For that reason, it is often called "the Webster charge."

[W]hat is reasonable doubt? It is a term often used, probably pretty well understood, but not easily defined. It is not mere possible doubt; because every thing relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge. The burden of proof is upon the prosecutor. All the presumptions of law independent of evidence are in favor of innocence; and every person is presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty. If upon such proof there is reasonable doubt remaining, the accused is entitled to the benefit of it by an acquittal. For it is not sufficient to establish a probability, though a strong one arising from the doctrine of chances, that the fact charged is more likely to be true than the contrary; but the evidence must establish the truth of the fact to a reasonable and moral certainty; a certainty that convinces and directs the understanding, and satisfies the reason and judgment, of those who are bound to act conscientiously upon it. This we take to be proof beyond reasonable doubt.

What exactly does "beyond a reasonable doubt" mean?

Beyond a reasonable doubt is hard to quantify, but it basically means that the prosecution has removed nearly all doubts as to whether the defendant committed the crime. Many states define reasonable doubt in their codes or in their common law (in their judicial opinions). For example, an Ohio law defines "reasonable doubt" as follows:

"Reasonable doubt" is present when the jurors, after they have carefully considered and compared all the evidence, cannot say they are firmly convinced of the truth of the charge. It is a doubt based on reason and common sense. Reasonable doubt is not mere possible doubt, because everything relating to human affairs or depending on moral evidence is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. "Proof beyond a reasonable doubt" is proof of such character that an ordinary person would be willing to rely and act upon it in the most important of the person's own affairs.

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