Category: Criminal Law

What is Obstruction of Justice?

Obstruction of justice in the United States means an act committed with the intention to interfere improperly with the administration of law. 18 U.S.C. § 1505 makes it a felony to interfere with a pending proceeding of a department or agency of the US government.   This statute also makes it felony to interfere in a Congressional investigation. 18 U.S.C. § 1503 criminalizes interference with a juror (including a member of a grand jury) or government official in a federal case. Some ways that a defendant might obstruct justice would be by lying to a government investigator, falsifying evidence,...

Read More

What is the felony murder rule?

Just to cover some definitions: a felony is a serious crime usually punishable by more than one year in prison.  Murder is the intentional killing of another human being without justification. The felony murder rule provides that someone may be guilty of murder under two circumstances where he would otherwise not be guilty of murder: 1. If a person kills someone while committing a violent felony. 2. If a person participates with someone else to commit a violent felony and someone is killed as a result of the crime. For example, let’s say David commits the serious and violent crime of armed robbery.  He accidentally shoots the victim and kills him.  Normally, killing someone by accident is not murder.  However, the felony murder rule would provide that David is guilty of murder because he killed the victim while committing  the violent felony. Now let’s say Davida is assisting David with the armed robbery by acting as a lookout.  She didn’t pull the trigger to kill the victim but may also be guilty of murder because she was a participant in the crime. Keep in mind that different states have different versions of the felony murder rule and federal law has its own definition.  A few states do not have the felony murder...

Read More

When do juries determine guilt in criminal cases? When do judges?

A student studying in the Netherlands asked about jury trials in criminal cases. If you watch US television shows and movies you’ll invariably see juries deciding criminal cases.   That makes sense both for entertainment and for purposes of understanding US law.  In criminal cases, Article III  and the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantee the right to a jury trial. However, the right only applies to serious crimes. As a general rule, if a defendant can be sentenced to more than six months, the defendant can demand a jury trial. If you wish to dispute a parking ticket in the United States, the Constitution will not guarantee you a jury trial but certain states allow for jury trials for less serious cases.  In other words, the Constitution of the United States might not require a jury trial in all cases, but states can establish their own rules for less serious...

Read More

I heard that the Boston Marathon bomber, Tsarnaev, can face the death penalty. So this means that Massachusetts has the death penalty? What about other states?

This is a really good question.  The answers are: Yes, Tsarnaev could receive the death penalty. No, Massachusetts does not have a death penalty. Yes, other states do impose the death penalty. The US has both federal and state court systems. Remember, because of federalism , the United States has both a federal court system and also state court systems.   Tsarnaev is currently on trial in a federal court, not state court.  The federal court is located in Massachusetts but the defendant is  facing federal charges, not state charges.  For some of his crimes, the federal court could sentence Tsarnaev to death.    Some, but not all states, impose the death penalty for certain crimes.  Massachusetts abolished the death penalty but that will not help Tsarnaev in federal court.   Tsarnaev could be tried on state charges, too. After his federal trial is over, Tsarnaev could be tried again on state charges in a Massachusetts state court.  That court could not punish Tsarnaev with the death penalty. Below is a video discussing...

Read More

What is civil forfeiture?

Civil forfeiture is a civil, non-criminal, process where the government permanently takes away a person’s property without compensation because the property is allegedly connected to a crime.  Laws governing civil forfeiture are often different from state to state.  Also, there are differences between federal and state forfeiture laws.   There has been a great deal of criticism of civil forfeiture for a number of reasons.  Critics argue that it is (i) too easy for law enforcement to initially seize property; (ii) too easy for the government to then permanently take the property; and that (iii) law enforcement agents engage in civil forfeiture for their own benefit. I’ll focus on just a few points.  First, the law allows the government to permanently take property which is connected to a crime.  By “connected to a crime” I mean that a criminal used the property to commit a crime or bought the property with proceeds from a crime.  For example, If a criminal sells illegal drugs and buys a car, the government may be able to permanently take the car as a proceed from the crime. Forfeiture often starts with the government seizing the property.  In our example above, if the police have probable cause to think the car was bought with proceeds from a crime, the police may be allowed to take the car.  Probable cause here means a reasonable belief, which should be more than just...

Read More

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.