Although America is typically considered a litigious society, the average person tends not to be very knowledgeable about the details of America’s justice system. The legal framework in America is unique when compared to that of other societies, particularly due to the “melting pot” nature of America’s origins. England’s justice system heavily influenced that of the United States, but the French culture in Louisiana also had, and continues to have, an effect in that region as well. One area in which the American system does not differ from other systems is that it is comprised of two major divisions: civil and criminal law.
While the former area focuses on resolving disputes between private parties, the criminal side of the legal system is framed as dealing with wrongs done by an individual or group against society as a whole. In criminal law, the “state” is facing off against the accused, rather than two private parties facing off as in civil law. In the criminal context, punishments are given to those who threaten to, or actually do, harm the well-being of others. The damage may be in terms of physical injury, damage to property, including houses, cars, and money. Philosophers differ on what the proper role of punishment in criminal cases is, but the two most popular justifications are punishing criminals for their acts and sending a message to others not to repeat the conduct.
Punishment does not come without a fair trial, however. In order to prove that one is guilty of a crime, the prosecution must meet a set burden of certainty. This is often referred to as proving responsibility “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecution must demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court that the accused is guilty of the crime accused, which can be difficult if a crime requires several different elements. Elements are sets of facts that comprise the crime, such as a victim dying, a dwelling being entered, or a speed limit being exceeded.
Elements may be mental or physical acts. For example, a crime may require a specific mental state, such as recklessness or knowledge and a physical act, such as using a gun or stealing something. For most crimes, the criminal must have intended to do the act and have done the act successfully for there to be criminal liability.
In the United States, every accused person is given the right to plead his case in the courtroom. Defendants can represent themselves, but a lawyer is recommended. The legal system will appoint a lawyer to those who are too poor to afford one, but only in the criminal law context. Because the field is highly complex, an attorney is a valuable asset.