Crimes

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Crimes

Acts or omissions that are in violation of law.

Each state in the United States, as well as the federal government, maintains a body of criminal laws. As populations have increased and personal interactions and business transactions have grown more complicated, criminal laws have likewise grown in number and complexity. Most jurisdictions codify criminal statutes in a separate section in their laws. However, some crimes are placed in chapters or titles outside the designated criminal code. Generally, criminal laws are divided into several broad categories: offenses affecting public order, health, and morals; offenses involving trade, business, and professions; and offenses against the family. These categories often overlap. Juveniles and minors generally receive special treatment under criminal statutes.

Offenses Affecting Public Order, Health, and Morals

A number of acts are made criminal to preserve public order, health, and morals. Some of these laws are based in the Common Law but have undergone significant changes over the years. Prostitution, if discreet and practiced indoors, was generally tolerated in colonial America, but streetwalkers were charged under lewdness, Vagrancy, or similar laws. In the late nineteenth century, states began to identify and prohibit all prostitution, in criminal statutes, where it was defined as engaging in sex for hire. Prostitution is now illegal in all states except Nevada, where it is strictly regulated.

Pandering, or inducing another into prostitution, is illegal in all states, including Nevada. The solicitation of prostitution is illegal in all states except Nevada, where it is allowed only in licensed brothels.

Public Obscenity laws find their roots in the religious prohibitions of blasphemy and heresy, or defiance of the church. Laws prohibiting blasphemy and heresy were passed in colonial America, but after the passage of the First Amendment in 1791, states began to focus obscenity statutes on material with a sexual content. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-104, Feb. 8, 1996, 110 Stat. 56, which included criminal punishment for the transmission of obscenity through cyberspace.

The definition of obscenity is generally a matter of contemporary community standards. In New York, for example, any material or performance is obscene if "the average person, applying contemporary community standards," would find that the predominant effect of the work as a whole appeals "to the prurient interest in sex" (N.Y. Penal Law § 235.00 [McKinney 1995]). To be defined as obscene, the material or performance must also depict or describe "in an offensive manner, actual or simulated: sexual intercourse, sexual bestiality, masturbation, sadism, masochism, excretion or lewd exhibition of the genitals." Finally, the material or performance must lack "serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value" before its creator can be punished for obscenity.

Obscenity laws include the prohibition of public profanity. The federal government, for example, outlaws visible written profanity in the mails and profanity on radio and television. The Federal Communications Commission makes some exceptions for certain words during nighttime hours. Profanity, like obscenity, is a fluid concept, and its treatment is frequently the subject of legislation.

Gambling is illegal in some states. Other states allow only certain forms of gambling. Even where gambling is legal, it is strictly regulated, and the regulations are enforced by criminal statutes. For example, persons who maintain an unlicensed gambling operation in New Jersey may be charged with a crime of the fourth degree. Fourth-degree crimes in New Jersey normally carry a penalty of a $7,500 fine or eighteen months' imprisonment, or both; when the crime is unlicensed gambling, fines may reach $25,000 for individuals and $100,000 for organizations.

The U.S. Congress and state legislatures prohibit the manufacture, possession, and sale of certain mood-altering substances, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogens. Many manufactured drugs yielding psychotropic effects are legal, but only under the administration of a physician.

All states maintain laws that prohibit the driving of motorized vehicles while under the influence of alcohol or other mood-altering substances. These driving-under-the-influence (DUI) and driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) statutes outlaw or prohibit the drunken driving of boats and snowmobiles in addition to passenger vehicles and motorcycles. The range of vehicles subject to these laws is ever expanding: in 1996, a Texas man was charged with riding a bicycle while intoxicated. Intoxication is defined by statute at a specified blood-alcohol ratio.

Some criminal statutes are mainly designed to preserve public order. For example, many states criminalize loitering or prowling. In New Hampshire, no person is allowed to appear "at a place, or at a time, under circumstances that warrant alarm for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity" (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 644:6). When challenged, however, many loitering statutes are held by courts to be unconstitutionally vague.

Breach of the peace is a generic description for a range of Disorderly Conduct. Generally, breach-of-the-peace crimes consist of acts that disturb public tranquility and order. Stalking, or menacing, is the related crime of continually following or forcing unwanted contact on another.The federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1961 et seq.) is designed to investigate, control, and prosecute Organized Crime. Many states have enacted their own Racketeering laws to mirror RICO. Essentially, RICO punishes a pattern of racketeering activity that is accomplished through an organized enterprise. Prosecutors have broadened the use of RICO to support an additional criminal charge for even the most loosely organized crimes. For example, a person who conspires with another to commit Fraud may be charged with fraud and violation of RICO, if the conspiracy was the product of an organized enterprise. Youth Gangs are among the organizations subject to RICO laws.

State and federal statutes criminalize the unlicensed possession of firearms. Firearm statutes prevent convicted felons from owning a gun. State and federal laws also place an outright ban on some models of automatic firearms.

Other criminal laws respecting public order, health, and morals are many and varied. State and federal election laws have burgeoned since the nineteenth century to prohibit a wide range of acts in connection with the public vote, such as campaigning on election day, coercing voters, and engaging in fraud. Immigration laws provide criminal penalties for immigrating illegally and for hiring illegal immigrants. All states maintain statutes to punish littering and the unauthorized dumping or storage of toxic waste. In Mississippi, Dueling is outlawed (Miss. Code Ann. § 97-39-1), as is cruelty to animals (§ 97-41-1). In New Hampshire, desecration of the U.S. flag is punishable as a misdemeanor (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 646-A:4).

Offenses Involving Trade, Business, and Professions

Fraud, theft, and Misrepresentation are extensively covered in state and federal statutes concerning virtually every occupation. These laws prohibit a wide variety of acts ranging from simulating gemstones and rigging weight scales to impersonating a doctor or a police officer, breaching confidentiality, and engaging in insider trading (the buying or selling of publicly held corporate shares by persons with inside or advance information regarding the corporation). The fraudulent use of credit cards is also the subject of criminal statutes. And Cable Television and computers have inspired a number of criminal statutes punishing their abuse; state statutes, for example, punish the theft of cable television services.

Offenses Against the Family

State legislatures enact numerous statutes to protect people against members of their own family. Child Abuse laws make criminal the physical or mental abuse of a child. Spousal abuse is also punished under state statutes.

The failure of a parent to pay court-ordered Child Support is made criminal in state statutes. States work together in apprehending so-called deadbeat parents through a uniform statute called the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (U.L.A. Unif. Interstate Family Support Act [1995]). A divorced parent who flees with a child may be criminally charged under state and federal Kidnapping statutes as well as Child Custody statutes.

Juveniles and Minors

Persons under the age of eighteen, known as juveniles, are presumed incapable of forming the criminal intent to commit criminal acts. They are, then, generally immune from prosecution for their crimes. They can still be held responsible in juvenile court for committing "delinquent acts," which, if they were committed as an adult, would be considered crimes. However, a juvenile may be tried for a crime if the prosecution is able to convince the court to certify the juvenile as an adult. A prosecutor generally reserves certification of a juvenile for serious crimes, such as murder or rape. In the 1990s, some state legislatures passed statutes allowing prosecutors to certify for criminal trial juveniles as young as age 14.

Minors also warrant special protection from society. Criminal statutes punish adults for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. This crime can be any act that tends to make a child delinquent. For example, giving a minor illegal drugs or Pornography is criminal under these statutes. State statutes also criminalize the sale of other adult materials, such as tobacco and alcohol, to minors.

Further readings

Douglas, John E., and Mark Olshaker. 1996. Mindhunters: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit. New York: Pocket Books.

Richardson, Jeb J. 1998. The Ten Worst Frauds Against America's Seniors. Fairfax, Va: Seniors Coalition.

Cross-references

Computer Crime; Domestic Violence; Drugs and Narcotics; Gaming; Juvenile Law.