Criminal law is the body of statutory and common law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses.
The process begins with an alleged crime. A “complaining witness” makes an accusation, which is investigated by the police, acting as agents of the government. A formal charging document called a complaint or an indictment brought by a grand jury is filed with a court in the appropriate jurisdiction.
In Virginia, the interests of the state are represented by a prosecuting attorney, called a Commonwealth’s Attorney, while the interests of the defendant are represented by his defense attorney or by the defendant as “pro se“ (acting as his own attorney). The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a speedy and public trial, in both state and federal courts, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime was committed and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense if the offense with which he is charged carries the possibility of a jail sentence upon conviction.
Criminal statutes spell out the exact circumstances which constitute a crime. These circumstances are known as the “elements” of the offense. Unless all the elements are proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” by the prosecuting authority, the defendant is not guilty of the offense.
Criminal law distinguishes crimes from civil wrongs such as tort or breach of contract. Criminal law has been seen as a system of regulating the behavior of individuals and groups in relation to societal norms whereas civil law is aimed primarily at the relationship between private individuals and their rights and obligations under the law. Although many ancient legal systems did not clearly define a distinction between criminal and civil law, in England there was little difference until the codification of criminal law occurred in the late nineteenth century. In most U.S. law schools, the basic course in criminal law is based upon the English common criminal law of 1750, the tradition from which most criminal law in Virginia descends.