LITTLE CRIMES & BIG CRIMES
JUST WHAT IS A CRIME?
A crime is any behavior that is punishable by imprisonment or fine (or both). In theUnited States, an act is considered criminal when Congress or a state or local legislativebody has defined it as such. But why are some acts defined as crimes while othersaren't? While whole books have been written on this subject, here are a few straightfor-ward reasons why crimes are crimes:Many acts that we consider crimes today were considered crimes under English lawwhen the United States became a country. In large part, the U.S. adopted English law asits own.Many crimes have their origin in moral precepts that originally were enforced bychurches and were eventually taken over by the secular state.Acts carried out with an antisocial or "evil" intent are usually considered worthy of pun-ishment.Acts that may have been acceptable at one time (such as physical punishment of achild, drinking while driving or sexual harassment) are redefined as crimes when societyconvinces lawmakers to criminalize them.Ultimately, what is and is not a crime is, to an extent, arbitrary and a reflection of whohas the power to decide. But with some notable exceptions -- for example, drug laws --most common crimes have been considered crimes for centuries and most people agreethat they should be. On the other hand, in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court hasstruck down certain federal crimes, finding that Congress had no authority under theConstitution to create them.Examples of federal crimes that have been disallowed are statutes forbidding the saleof firearms within a certain distance of schools and allowing rape prosecutions in feder-al court. Under these decisions, the question of which crimes may be created by Con-gress, and which crimes must be left to the states, remains an open one.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FELONY AND A MISDEMEANOR?
Most states break their crimes into two major groups: felonies and misdemeanors.Whether a crime falls into one category or the other depends on the potential punish-ment. If a law provides for imprisonment for longer than a year, the crime is usuallyconsidered a felony. If the potential punishment is for a year or less, then it is consid-ered a misdemeanor.In some states, certain crimes, called "wobblers," may be considered either a misde-meanor or a felony, because under some conditions the punishment may be imprison-ment for less than a year, and in other situations, the criminal may go to prison for ayear or more.Behaviors punishable only by fine are usually not considered crimes at all, but infrac-tions such as traffic tickets. But a legislature may on occasion punish behavior only byfine and still provide that it is a misdemeanor, such as possession of less than an ounceof marijuana for personal use in California.