What is a Crime?

Los Angeles Criminal Law Terms and Definitions

Q: What is a “crime”?

A: A crime is something that the people of the state or of a society get together and decide something is against the law.
Q: What is the difference between civil and criminal law?

A: The difference between civil and criminal law is in the remedies. A civil judgment is generally where the only remedy is money, an example would be two parties suing each other for money damages. In criminal law the penalties can include fines, incarceration or even death.
Q: What does it mean to be “charged” with a crime?

A: When you are charged with a crime it means a prosecuting agency has decided to file a criminal offense against you. Prosecuting agencies include:

  • City Attorney’s Office – Local level
  • District Attorney’s Office – State Level
  • Attorney General’s Office – Larger State Level
  • FBI – Federal Level

Q: What is “probable cause”?

A: Probable cause is what police officers are supposed to have in order to be able to arrest you or to be able to get a search warrant signed against you.
Probable cause is a fluid legal term which is subject to a test, which they call the “Totality of the Circumstances,” which means if an officer can articulate or spell out why they believe enough factors exist for them to either arrest you or detain you, then probable cause exists; i.e.
Examples of probable cause:

  • “suspicious movements”
  • smell drugs
  • car without license plates/expired tabs

Q: What is the difference between a “misdemeanor” and a “felony” crime?

A: The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is in the punishment. A misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in the county jail. A felony is punishable by one year or more in a state prison. The practical realities of these may be different. Somebody charged with a felony may do less than a state prison sentence, but these are defined by their punishments.
Q: What does it mean to be arrested?

A: Arrested means that a police officer has what they believe to be probable cause to arrest you. That is reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has been committed and that you are the person who committed that crime.


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