What Constitutes a Crime?

Crimes Can Be Against Persons or Property

Close up of metal handcuffs
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A crime occurs when someone breaks the law by an overt act, omission, or neglect that can result in punishment. A person who has violated a law, or has breached a rule, is said to have committed a criminal offense.

In the U.S., three primary classifications of criminal offenses exist—felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. Federal, state, and local government officials pass laws defining what constitutes a crime, so the definition of crime can vary from state to state and even city to city. In the U.S., police and sheriff's departments generally enforce the law and may arrest those accused of committing a crime, while the judicial system—comprised of judges and juries—generally imposes punishments or sentences for various crimes, as they are defined in given jurisdictions.

Types of Crimes

There are two main categories of crime: property crime and violent crime. There are other types outside of these, but many crimes can be placed into these two categories.

Property Crimes 

A property crime is committed when someone damages, destroys, or steals someone else's property. Stealing a car and vandalizing a building are examples of property crimes. Property crimes are by far the most commonly committed crime in the United States.

Violent Crimes

A violent crime occurs when someone harms, attempts to harm, threatens to harm, or conspires to harm someone else. Violent crimes involve force or threat of force and include crimes such as rape, robbery, and homicide. Some crimes can be both property crimes and violent crimes. Examples include carjacking someone's vehicle at gunpoint and robbing a convenience store with a handgun.

Crimes of Omission

Some crimes are neither violent crimes nor property crimes. A crime of omission entails failing to obey the law, which can endanger people and property. Running a stop sign, for example, is a crime because it puts the public in danger. Withholding medication or neglecting someone who needs medical care or attention are also examples of crimes of omission. If you know someone who is abusing a child and you do not report it, you could be charged with a crime for failing to act.

White-Collar Crime

The phrase "white-collar crime" was first used in 1939 by sociologist Edwin Sutherland during a speech to members of the American Sociological Society. Sutherland defined it as "a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation."

Generally, white-collar crime is nonviolent and committed for financial gain by business professionals, politicians, and others in positions of relative power. Often, white-collar crimes include fraudulent financial schemes. Examples include securities fraud, insider trading, Ponzi schemes, embezzlement, money laundering, insurance fraud, tax fraud, and mortgage fraud.

Legal Jurisdictions

Society decides what is and is not a crime through its system of laws. In the United States, there are three separate systems of laws: federal, state, and local.

Federal

Federal laws are passed by the U.S. Congress and applied to everyone in the United States. When federal laws conflict with state and local laws, federal laws generally prevail. Federal laws cover a range of areas including immigration, business, child welfare, Social Security, consumer protection, controlled substances, bankruptcy, education, housing, environmental protection and land use, and discrimination based on gender, age, race, or ability. The impeachment of government officials is often decided by federal laws as well.

State

State laws are passed by elected legislators—also known as lawmakers—and can vary widely from state to state. Gun laws, for example, are different across the country. Although drunk driving is illegal in all 50 states, the penalties for driving while intoxicated can be very different between states. Some areas covered by state laws include education, family issues (such as wills, inheritance, and divorce), criminal offenses, health and safety, public assistance, licensing and regulation, Medicaid, and property crimes.

Local

Local laws, usually known as ordinances, are passed by local county or city governing bodies such as commissions or councils. Local ordinances usually control how residents are expected to behave in the community, such as slowing down in school zones and disposing of trash properly. Local laws often pertain to safety and property.

The Criminal Justice System

In the criminal justice system of the U.S., if you are arrested for a crime, you are detained and read your Miranda rights, which state that you have the right to an attorney, the right to remain silent, and that anything you say "can and will" be used against you in a court of law. You are then given an arraignment, where you make your first appearance in court. Under due process, your constitutional rights entitle you to:

  • A trial by a jury of your peers
  • A public trial
  • A speedy trial
  • The right to confront witnesses against you
  • Protection from cruel and unusual punishment
  • Protection from paying excessive bail
  • Protection from being tried twice for the same crime, which is called double jeopardy

The criminal justice system is not a one-size-fits-all system; it is dependent on human beings. Because of this, biases exist, and different populations, such as Black men and other underserved populations, can and often are treated differently by the legal system.

Ignorance of the Law

One area of note about the criminal justice system is that usually someone has to have "intent" to be accused of a crime, meaning they intended to break the law, but this is not always the case. You can be charged with a crime even if you don't know the law exists. For example, you may not know that a city has passed an ordinance banning the use of cell phones while driving, but if you are caught doing it, you can be charged and punished.

The phrase "ignorance of the law is no exception" means that you can be held liable for breaking a law you didn't know existed.

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Montaldo, Charles. "What Constitutes a Crime?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-crime-970836. Montaldo, Charles. (2021, September 8). What Constitutes a Crime? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-crime-970836 Montaldo, Charles. "What Constitutes a Crime?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-crime-970836 (accessed October 26, 2021).