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Crimes against the person include homicide, assault, battery, and rape. All of those crimes are serious offenses. A defendant found guilty of one of them may receive a harsh sentence. However, the law also protects the defendant by defining various levels of these crimes and by considering the circumstances of each offense.

Homicide – the killing of one human being by another – is the most serious of all acts. Homicides may be either noncriminal or criminal.

Some homicides are not crimes at all. Noncriminal homicide is a killing that is justifiable or excusable and for which the killer is deemed faultless. Examples of noncriminal homicide include the killing of an enemy soldier in wartime, the killing of a condemned criminal by an executioner, the killing by a police officer of a person who is committing a serious crime and who poses a threat of death or serious harm, and a killing performed in self-defense or in defense of another.

Criminal homicide murder, the most serious form of criminal homicide, is a killing that is done with malice. Malice means having the intent to kill or seriously harm. At one time, there were no de­grees of murder. Any homicide done with malice was considered to be murder and was punishable by death. To reduce the punishment for less grievous homicides, most states now have statutes that clas­sify murder according to the killer's state of mind or the circum­stances surrounding the crime.

First-degree murder is a killing that is premeditated (thought about beforehand), deliberate, and done with malice (that is, with in­tent to kill).

Second-degree murder is a killing that is done with malice but without premeditation. That is, the intent to kill did not exist until just before the murder took place.

Felony murder is a killing that takes place during the commission of certain felonies, such as arson, rape, robbery, or burglary. It is not necessary to prove intent to kill; felony murder includes most killing committed during a felony, even if the killing is accidental. Most states consider felony murder to be first-degree murder.

Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing committed under circumstances that mitigate (lessen), but do not justify or excuse, the killing. Manslaughter is based on the idea that even "the reasonable person" may lose self-control and act rashly if sufficiently provoked.

Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing resulting from conduct so reckless that it causes extreme danger of death or bodily injury. An example is a killing that results from playing with a gun known to be loaded.

Negligent homicide is the causing of death through criminal negligence. Negligence is the failure to exercise a reasonable or ordinary amount of care in a situation that causes harm to someone.


The category of crimes against property includes crimes in which property is destroyed (such as arson and vandalism) and crimes in which property is stolen or otherwise taken against the will of the owner (such as robbery and embezzlement).

Arson is the willful and malicious burning of another person's property.

Vandalism is willful destruc­tion of, or damage to, the property of another. It includes such things as breaking windows, ripping down fences, flooding basements, and breaking off car aerials.

Larceny is the unlawful taking and carrying away of the property of another with intent to steal it. In most states, larceny is divided into two classes, grand and petty, depending on the value of the stolen item. The crime of larceny also includes keeping lost property when a reasonable method exists for finding the owner.

Shoplifting is a form of larceny. It is the crime of taking items from a store without paying or intending to pay for them.

Embezzlement is the unlawful taking of property by someone to whom it was entrusted. For example, the bank teller who takes money from the cash drawer or the stockbroker who takes money that should have been invested are both guilty of embezzlement.

Robbery is the unlawful taking of property from a person's imme­diate possession by force or intimidation. Though included here as a crime against property, robbery, unlike other theft offenses, involves two harms: theft of property and actual or potential physical harm to the victim.

Extortion popularly called blackmail, is the use of threats to ob­tain the property of another. Extortion statutes generally cover threats to do future physical harm, destroy property (for example, "I'll burn down your barn unless you pay me $500"), or injure some­one's character or reputation.

Burglary was originally defined as breaking and entering the dwelling of another during the night with intent to commit a felony. Modern laws have broadened the definition to include the unautho­rized entry into any structure with the intent to commit a crime, re­gardless of the time of day.

Forgery is a crime in which a person falsely makes or alters a writing or document with intent to defraud. This usually means signing, without permission, the name of another person to a check or some other document.

Receiving Stolen Property. If you receive or buy property that you know or have reason to believe is stolen, you have committed the crime of receiving stolen property.

Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle. Several crimes may occur when a person unlawfully takes a motor vehicle without the owner's consent. The crime of unauthorized use of a vehicle (UUV) is committed if the person only intends to take the vehicle temporarily.

Computer Crime

Computer crime is broadly defined as unauthorized access to, use of, alteration of, or taking of another person's computer systems or files. This activity is illegal even if the person does not intend to do any harm.

Corporate and government computer systems are the most popu­lar targets of computer crime. Some people who work for corpora­tions or the government may try to sell information to business rivals or foreign governments. Others may use computers to embezzle money.

Most of those who gain unauthorized access to computer systems are "hackers." Hackers, sometimes high-school or college-age per­sons, intentionally try to break into computer systems. Once hackers enter a system, they usually look at confidential or classified files. Occasionally, a hacker may copy a file and distribute it. Hackers an­nually cause an estimated $1 billion worth of damage to computer files. There is disagreement on how hackers should be punished. Many persons feel that hackers are dangerous and should receive jail terms and pay large fines like other white-collar criminals. Oth­ers argue that hackers break into systems as a hobby, do not intend any harm, and can be rehabilitated.

Some hackers release "viruses" or "worms" into computer systems. Viruses are computer programs designed to play practical jokes or destroy data and damage computer files. Worms are designed to slow down computer systems but not to destroy data. Both viruses and worms are prohibited by computer crime laws.

The federal government (USA) has also been carefully watching comput­er bulletin board systems. Bulletin boards allow users to exchange computer files and messages using computers and modems. Some of these bulletin boards make commercial software programs available to users. However, making the programs available without the pub­lisher's permission is illegal.

Another type of computer crime occurs when someone illegally copies software he or she has purchased. Software companies lose over $2 billion each year to illegal copying. A person who opens a software package is agreeing to use the software on one computer only. This person is allowed to make copies of the software only to use as a backup. Placing software on more than one computer with­out the publisher's permission is illegal and violates federal copyright laws. The violator is subject to a possible jail term and a fine of up to $250,000. Violators can include individuals, businesses, and schools.

Despite the attention given to computer crimes, most probably go unreported. Many companies are reluctant to publicize their vulner­ability to computer criminals. Also, many are discouraged by the re­sources and time needed to prosecute individuals.

In all legal systems there are institutions for creating, modifying, abolishing and applying the law. Usually these take the form of a hierarchy of courts. The role of each court and its capacity to make decisions is strictly defined in relation to other courts.

We can use the English system as an example of how courts relate to one another. In general, the division between civil and criminal law is reflected in this system. The Crown Courts, for example, deal exclusively with criminal matters, the County Courts, with civil. However, the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court considers appeals from lower criminal courts, as well as civil matters, and the Magistrates Courts, while mostly concerned with criminal cases, also deal with some civil matters. The highest court, the House of Lords, deals with all matters (including appeals from Scottish and Northern Irish courts).

A criminal case usually begins in a Magistrates Court. Having arrested someone suspected of committing a crime, the police must decide if they have enough evidence to make a formal accusation, or charge. As the lowest criminal court, a Magistrates Court is empowered to hear certain cases only. Some minor cases, such as parking violations, are dealt with only by the magistrates. Some serious crimes, like murder, cannot be heard by the magistrates and must go to the Crown Courts. And there are some offences where the defendant is given the choice of having his case heard in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court. It takes much longer to have a case heard in the Crown Court, but some defendants prefer it because the facts of the case are decided by a jury, that is, ordinary members of the public.

In a Crown Court trial there are twelve jurors. These are ordinary members of the public between the ages of 18 and 70 who are selected at random. It is not necessary for a juror to know anything about the law. This is because the job of the jury is to listen to the case and to decide questions of fact. It is the judge's responsibility to guide them on questions of law.

In addition to the courts mentioned above, there are numerous special courts which have been established to make decisions in particular types of dispute. For example, special industrial tribunals deal with disputes over contracts and sexual discrimination in employment matters.

Appeals. A defendant found guilty by the magistrates may appeal against the finding or against the punishment to the local Crown Court, and the Crown, Court judge will hear the appeal without a jury. If a defendant has good reason to believe the magistrates have made a mistake about a point of law, then he may appeal to the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court. Appeals from the Crown Court go first to the High Court and, in special cases, to the Court of Appeal. Occasionally, a case is carried through this system of appeal all the way to the House of Lords.

Law is also made by courts. The USA system of law, which originated in England, gives courts lawmaking power. In this system, court deci­sions establish legal principles and rules of law known as common law.

There are two types of courts in the United States: trial and ap­peals. Trial courts listen to testimony, consider evidence, and de­cide the facts in disputed situations. In a trial, there are two parties (sides) to each case. In a civil trial, the party initiating the legal ac­tion is called the plaintiff. In a criminal trial, the government (state or federal) initiates the case and serves as the prosecutor. In both civil and criminal trials, the party responding to the plaintiff (civil) or prosecution (criminal) is called the defendant. Once a trial court has made a decision, the losing party may be able to appeal the deci­sion to an appellate, or appeals, court.

The most important precedents are es­tablished by the U.S. Supreme Court, where nine justices hear each case and a majority rules. All United States courts must follow U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The Supreme Court does not consider all appeals that are brought to it. It rules only on the most important cases. The nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are nominated by the presi­dent and confirmed by the Senate.
There are two separate court sys­tems in the United States – federal and state. Federal courts hear criminal and civil cases involving federal law. They also hear cases involving parties from different states when the amount in dispute is more than $10,000. Federal trial courts are known as U.S. District Courts. If you lose a trial in the U.S. District Court, you may be able to appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in your region. The United States has thirteen circuit courts. The court of final appeal is the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most state court systems resemble the federal courts in structure and procedure. All states have trial courts. These are called superior, county, district, or municipal courts, depending on the state. State courts are often specialized to deal with specific legal areas, such as family, traffic, criminal, probate, and small claims. Family or domestic relations courts hear actions involving divorce, separation, and child custody. Cases involving juveniles and intrafamily offenses (fights within families) may also be heard. Some­times, cases involving juveniles are heard in a special juvenile court. Traffic courts hear actions involving violations committed by persons driving motor vehicles. Criminal courts hear cases involving viola­tions of laws for which the violators could go to jail. Frequently, crim­inal court is divided between felony and misdemeanor cases. Probate courts handle cases involving wills and claims against the estates of persons who die with or without a will. Small claims courts hear cases involving small amounts of money (maximums of $500, $750, $1,000, or more, depending on the state).


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