Crimes A-Z Legal Information
State and federal laws define a wide variety of crimes. Because the law is a collaborative, ongoing effort that goes back hundreds of years in some states, there are often many more crimes on the books than those that are often committed or charged by law enforcement. In fact, a few crimes remain on the books despite being outmoded, or made illegal by court rulings. In addition, most states and federal law overlap with one another on major categories of crimes. This article lays out some charges criminal lawyers commonly see.
If you’ve been charged with a crime, it’s best to hire a criminal defense lawyer. What type of lawyer you should look for varies widely according to the crime and the area. Some criminal lawyers work in general criminal defense, while others specialize in a category of crimes, such as DUI or white-collar crime. When you’re ready to meet with a lawyer you’re considering hiring, be sure to ask about his or her experience with your type of case.
AIDING, ABETTING, ACCESSORY AND ACCOMPLICE CHARGES
Aiding, abetting, accomplice and accessory charges allege that you intentionally helped someone commit a crime, but didn’t actively commit it. That help can come before, during or after the crime. Examples:
Providing information and materials to someone you know will use them to commit a crime.
Acting as a lookout during a crime.
Driving someone to or from a crime.
Covering up for a loved one who you know committed a crime.
The distinctions between aiding, accessory and other charges vary according to where you were charged. But generally, accomplice or aiding and abetting is more serious than an accessory charge. If you actively planned the crime, you may be subject to a more serious charge of conspiracy.
Arson is the crime of intentionally setting a fire for illegal or improper reasons. Like many criminal laws, arson is defined differently across states. Laws usually specify that the fire must be intended to destroy property. Some specifically include undeveloped lands such as forests and state parks.
Depending on the circumstances, people convicted of arson face one to ten years in prison. Many states have laws that increase the time served according to the damage caused by the fire. That is, the sentence is likely to be higher if the fire burned a dwelling or a business, or hurt someone. Those charged can also expect a higher sentence if they set the fire in order to commit insurance fraud.
ASSAULT AND BATTERY
Assault and battery are broad names for a variety of charges of violence against a person. In many states, assault is striking a person (with the hand or an object), attempting to strike a person, or threatening someone with fear of immediate harm. That means you can be charged with assault and/or battery if you merely threaten harm, or if you try and fail to hurt someone.
Assault and battery can be state charges or federal charges. Some states define assault and battery as different crimes, with battery being more serious, while others put them together. Within that framework, there can be many degrees of assault and battery. A common one is the more serious aggravated assault, which is an assault that causes serious injury. Depending on the nature of the assault, it could be punished by as little as a fine or more than ten years in prison.
Bribery is giving, or offering to give, valuable things to a decision-making official in exchange for influence over that official’s decisions. We most often think of bribery as involving government officials, but many state laws define it more widely. For example, in California, it’s a crime to bribe a juror, an umpire or anyone else who is authorized by law to make an impartial decision.
In many states, both the person offering the bribe and the person receiving it can be charged with bribery. In other places, the person receiving the bribe may be charged with a related crime like corruption or graft. The penalty is usually one to five years in prison, plus a fine based on the amount of the bribe.
Burglary, which may be called “housebreaking” in some places, is the crime of unlawfully entering any structure with the intent to commit a crime. The main difference between burglary and robbery is that robbery usually involves force, where burglary usually does not. The law doesn’t usually limit burglary to theft from a private home. Burglary can be committed by entering any structure, such as a storage unit, a business or a vehicle. Nor do you have to use force to enter; if the door is wide open and you enter in order to commit a crime, you are still committing burglary. And the crime intended doesn’t have to be theft. In fact, you can be charged with burglary in some places even if you didn’t end up committing the crime.
Burglary is both a state and a federal crime. The penalties are generally steeper if there was significant property stolen or damaged; if there was violence or bodily injury against victims; and if it was a private home, especially if the occupants were home during the crime. The penalties range from probation to six or more years in prison.
CHILD ABUSE AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Child abuse is a category of crimes involving physical, sexual or sometimes emotional cruelty to a child, or neglect of a child by his or her caregiver. It can also be called domestic violence or domestic abuse; or abandonment or desertion.
Physical abuse is using physical violence -- hitting, burning, shaking -- that is too severe to be considered a punishment. Sexual abuse is any sexual behavior with a child, including taking sexual photos or allowing the child to be a prostitute. In some states, it’s also a crime when the child’s caregiver knowingly allows these things to happen. Emotional abuse can be withholding affection, frequent verbal abuse, penalizing a child for normal behavior and other unreasonable emotional behaviors. Abuse can be committed by someone other than the child’s parent or primary caregiver, but in some states, this is regarded as assault rather than child abuse.
Child abuse and neglect are state crimes. They carry a variety of punishments, depending on the state and the circumstances, including jail or prison time from a few months to several years; mandatory classes in anger management; and fines. In addition, almost all child abuse and neglect cases involving a primary caregiver are likely to result in having the child taken away from that caregiver.
Child pornography crimes are a series of crimes involving making, distributing, selling or possessing sexually explicit materials portraying children. It is a very serious crime on both the state and federal levels. In federal law, under which many child pornography prosecutions happen, child pornography and related crimes are punishable by five to 40 years in prison, depending on the crime and sometimes the age of the child. Some courts have found that the child depicted does not have to be truly a child -- or real -- in order to trigger a conviction.
Because so much child pornography is distributed over the Internet, thus crossing state lines, child pornography is often prosecuted under federal law. However, the penalties may be even harsher on the state level, and either type of conviction can include additional restrictions like a requirement to register as a sex offender, restrictions on where you may live and professional licensing trouble.
Computer crimes are a variety of crimes committed mostly or solely online. They can include:
“Hacking,” making viruses and other types of assault on a person’s or institution’s data and computer for the purpose of stealing, destroying or simply breaking into that person’s data.
“Nuisance” types of crimes such as spamming and denial of service attacks.
Financial fraud committed online, including but not limited to “phishing.”
If the crime involved crossing state lines, in real life or on the Internet, it may be charged as a federal crime. Federal laws against “hacking” carry punishments from a fine to decades in prison, depending on the damage caused. State law is most likely to cover Internet fraud crimes with a local scope.
Conspiracy to commit a crime is charged against people who helped plan the crime and took some action toward committing it. It’s a more serious version of an aiding and abetting or accessory charge. For example, if two people made a detailed plan to steal a museum’s diamond, but only one of them broke into the museum and took the gem, both could be charged with conspiracy. Asking or paying someone to commit a violent crime is a more serious type of conspiracy.
Conspiracy is both a state and federal crime. Some systems make conspiracy to commit a felony punishable by the same amount of prison time as the crime itself; others put it at half of the prison time of the crime itself. Conspiracy to commit a less serious crime, like financial fraud, may draw a steep fine, jail time or a few years in prison.
CREDIT OR DEBIT CARD FRAUD
Credit and debit card fraud is a widespread and serious type of financial fraud. It’s defined as taking, using, buying, selling or forging someone else’s card number and information. It can also be intentionally using your own card while knowing that it’s expired, revoked or insufficient; or knowingly allowing someone else to use an illegal or unauthorized card.
Like child pornography, credit card fraud is frequently committed using the Internet. For that reason, it’s often charged under federal law. Punishments for credit card fraud range from a fine up to 20 years in prison, depending on the crime and amount of money and goods stolen. Both state and federal laws often allow the government to confiscate property used in committing the crime as well.
Disorderly conduct encompasses state laws against being drunk in public, picking fights, loitering or generally disturbing the peace. They are generally used by law enforcement to stop an intoxicated or unreasonable person from causing trouble in public. A disorderly-conduct arrest may not result in a prosecution, depending on what happened and law enforcement’s judgment. If it does, you can expect a punishment of a fine or a small amount of jail time. Other charges that stemmed from the same incident might carry more serious penalties.
Domestic violence is physical, psychological and sometimes sexual abuse of people close to the perpetrator. Both men and women can commit or be victims of domestic violence. Depending on the state, victims can be family members like spouses, children and parents; people who are not related but live with the perpetrator; or a current or former romantic partner. Almost any violence against these people is considered domestic violence in many places, but serious domestic violence cases usually involve repetitive violent behavior and a feeling of helplessness for the victims. Sexual assault, including sexual assault of a spouse, may be considered domestic violence if the circumstances allow it.
Domestic violence is usually punished under state laws. The severity of the punishment depends on how badly the victim was hurt; whether the perpetrator violated a restraining or protective order; previous convictions; and other circumstances. Generally, perpetrators can expect a fine, probation and/or jail time (prison time if there was a severe injury); anger management classes; and prohibitions against owning or using a gun. A domestic violence conviction can also cause problems in divorce, child custody or visitation matters, and may affect professional licensing.
DRUG CULTIVATION AND MANUFACTURING
Drug cultivation and manufacturing laws make it illegal to grow or make controlled substances. Both state and federal laws apply to drug creation. Federal laws are more likely to apply when the drugs crossed state lines; when they were part of related federal crimes; or when there was a large amount of drugs.
What penalties apply to drug creation depends heavily on the drug and the amount of it, as well as whether you were charged under state or federal law. Generally, penalties are harsher under federal law; for larger amounts of the substance; and for drugs classified as more serious. Thus, someone who grows marijuana for personal use can expect to have a significantly lower punishment than someone who makes large amounts of crack cocaine. Penalties range from a fine and jail time to decades in prison. In addition, under federal law, law enforcement may confiscate property used to make or grow the drugs and anything bought with the proceeds of selling them.
DRUG DISTRIBUTION AND TRAFFICKING
Federal and state drug distribution and trafficking laws make it illegal to import, transport and sell restricted drugs. They are generally the most serious drug laws, and frequently are charged along with drug cultivation, manufacturing and possession. Both state and federal laws prohibit selling and distributing drugs, but trafficking will usually fall under federal laws because it often involves crossing borders.
As with other drug crimes, penalties can vary widely according to the drug, the amount and the circumstances. Federal trafficking penalties include million-dollar fines and 5 to 40 years in prison. Federal law allows law enforcement to take any property used to sell the drugs, and property bought with the proceeds. State law punishments range from a small fine to years in prison.
It’s illegal under federal and state laws to knowingly and willfully possess controlled substances. This is the least serious category of drug crime. It may be charged along with other drug crimes in large cases, or charged as “simple possession” for a recreational user. The punishment depends on the drug, the amount and your area. In some states, possession of a “lesser” drug like marijuana can result in a small fine, jail time or drug education classes. Possessing a large amount of a serious drug can put you in prison for years or even decades.
DUI AND DWI
DUI stands for driving under the influence and DWI stands for driving while intoxicated. Both crimes may exist in your area, but they both make it illegal to drive with a certain amount of alcohol or drugs in your system. All states have a blood-alcohol concentration limit of at least 0.08%. That number is often lower for minors and for people with commercial driver’s licenses. In some places, driving with a smaller BAC can get you charged with a less serious crime, like reckless driving. Any amount of a prohibited drug (including prescription sleep aids, over-the-counter medicines and illegal street drugs) is enough to trigger a DUI or DWI.
Punishments for a DUI or DWI can be very harsh. Generally, first offenders can expect a fine, alcohol or drug education classes, and temporary suspension or revocation of a driver’s license. Those punishments increase with subsequent offenses, plus you can expect jail or prison time and possibly community service and an ignition “breathalyzer.”
Embezzlement is stealing money or other assets that have been entrusted to the perpetrator. Because of this, it’s generally committed against an employer, a client or an organization the perpetrator volunteers for. It’s considered white-collar crime.
Embezzlement is a theft crime, but the betrayal-of-trust aspect makes it a more serious crime than simple theft. State law often gives perpetrators the same punishments as other convicted thieves, but adds requirements to pay back the embezzled funds; ineligibility for elected office; and extra penalties for victimizing vulnerable groups. Federal law requires a fine and/or years in prison.
Extortion is compelling someone to give away valuables by use of force or threats. It is a form of robbery, but is not usually violent. Instead, the extorter forces the victim to hand over money or property by threatening physical harm to the victim or something the victim cares about; social or financial harm to the victim; or unfavorable rules or laws. Blackmail is a form of extortion, as is Mafia “protection.” Punishments vary from large fines to a small amount of jail or prison time.
Forgery is making a false document. It can be as simple as signing someone else’s name or as elaborate as printing false driver’s licenses. It’s often classified with counterfeiting, but usually considered less serious. In most cases, forgery is punishable with a large fine and a year in jail or prison. It may be punished more severely if the perpetrator stole a large amount of money.
Hate crimes are crimes motivated by intolerance of certain protected groups. A crime committed specifically because of the victim’s race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation or disability is a hate crime. For example, bombing any building is a crime, but bombing a Jewish temple because it’s a Jewish temple is a hate crime. Racially motivated lynchings would also be considered hate crimes. Areas with hate-crimes laws believe they have an interest in stopping violence meant to terrorize all members of the targeted group.
Because most hate crimes are already crimes, they’re often charged as sentence enhancements to vandalism, assault, battery or arson rather than as separate crimes. In other places, a hate crime is its own crime. Punishments are generally harsher than the punishment for a similar crime that was not motivated by hate.
Indecent exposure is one of the mildest sex crimes. It applies to people who intentionally expose their naked genitals to the public, either as an end in itself or as part of another act. Frequently, state law says exposure must be “offensive to decency,” “lewd,” “obscene” or “intended to excite.” That is, the person is doing it specifically for sexual purposes.
Indecent exposure is usually a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or a small amount of jail time. Subsequent offenses may be charged as felonies. Because it’s a sex offense, some states may also require those convicted of indecent exposure to register as sex offenders.
Identity theft is the federal or state crime of using another person’s identifying and financial information in order to commit fraud. The penalties depend on what was stolen, but can include up to 25 years in prison.
Insurance fraud is most often intentionally making a false insurance claim. It can also be embezzlement by an insurance agent, or selling false insurance policies. Penalties for consumers range from a year in county jail to several years in prison, but may be much higher for agents and companies.
Kidnapping, a state and federal crime, is abducting someone (adult or child) against his or her will. Some state laws add that kidnapping is an abduction committed for unlawful purposes, like extortion. Kidnapping carries penalties of up to about 12 years in prison, with more time added if violence or other crimes were involved.
Involuntary manslaughter is a killing committed unintentionally, but through recklessness, negligence or a misdemeanor crime. Some states make it a separate crime from vehicular manslaughter. Those convicted will serve two to six years in prison.
Voluntary manslaughter is a killing that the perpetrator intended to commit, but did not plan. Involuntary manslaughter is an accident; voluntary manslaughter is committed “in the heat of the moment.” It carries a penalty of three to 11 years in prison.
Money laundering is transferring illegally obtained money in a way that makes it look like legitimate income. For example, a drug dealer who also owns a grocery store may “launder” his drug proceeds by representing them as income from the store. The penalties for money laundering are steep, especially on the federal level, including fines as well as up to 20 years in prison.
A first-degree murder is a voluntary and premeditated killing. In many states, first-degree murder is also charged when a killing results from another violent crime, regardless of whether it was intended. Those convicted could face the death penalty or life in prison.
Second-degree murder is best understood as opportunistic, intentional killing. It’s a killing that wasn’t planned, like a first-degree murder, but also didn’t result from “the heat of the moment,” as with voluntary manslaughter. It can also be a killing that results from dangerous behavior that obviously lacks regard for human life. Those convicted face 15 years to life in prison.
Perjury is the legal name for lying under oath, or knowingly signing a document that makes false statements. Asking or compelling someone else to lie under oath is called suborning perjury. Both crimes draw up to five years in prison for the most serious cases.
Prostitution is offering to have, agreeing to have or actually having sex for money. Those who buy the services of a prostitute may be convicted of soliciting prostitution, and those who facilitate the crime may be convicted of pimping or pandering. All three are punishable by a small fine or up to a year or two in prison.
A pyramid scheme is a type of fraud that promises a large return for a small investment, as long as the victim solicits more investors. It’s generally prosecuted by the states as fraud, or sometimes as a “cybercrime,” if the scheme was conducted online. The penalties range from a fine and reparations to a few years in prison.
As a state crime, racketeering is running an illegal business (like drug manufacture or blackmail). The RICO (Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act is a federal law allowing racketeering charges for those believed to be involved in organized crime. Racketeering may also be the running of a legitimate business whose profits go to organized crime. The penalties are steep fines, seizure of property and up to 20 years in prison per racketeering count.
Rape is forcing another person to have sexual intercourse through violence, threats or fraud. It can also be taking advantage of another person’s youth, unconsciousness or diminished mental state to convince him or her to have sexual intercourse. It’s punishable by up to ten years in prison, with much harsher punishments if the victim was very young or serious force was used. Consensual statutory rape generally draws fines and jail time rather than prison time.
Robbery is usually defined as theft by force. Unlike burglary and extortion, it must involve immediate fear of physical harm. If the perpetrator used a gun, it will be charged as the more serious crime of aggravated or armed robbery. Robbery is generally punished with two to ten years in prison, with much harsher penalties for firearm use.
Securities fraud is deceiving or manipulating investors in order to entice them to make bad investments. It’s committed when corporate officers mislead investors about their stock; when officers disclose confidential stock information; or when people act on information they obtained unlawfully. Securities fraud is usually, but not always, prosecuted by the federal government, with penalties ranging from probation to hundreds of years in prison. In some cases, investors file civil lawsuits in addition to or instead of any prosecution.
Sexual assault is forcing another person to commit sexual acts through violence, threats or fraud. Unlike rape, sexual assault does not have to include conventional sexual intercourse. In some places, the terms are used interchangeably. Sexual assault penalties vary, but average up to 10 years in prison.
Stalking is the crime of consistently harassing, threatening and bothering a victim who legitimately fears for his or her safety. Victims can be anyone, but are often either high-profile people or former romantic partners of the stalker. Convicted stalkers may get a few months up to five years in prison, and may be subject to fines, restraining orders and sex-offender registration.
TAX EVASION AND TAX FRAUD
Tax evasion and tax fraud are acts of intentionally avoiding or refusing to pay legitimate taxes. State law governs state tax evasion and fraud, while federal law governs evasion of federal taxes. Those convicted will be forced to pay back taxes and fines and may also go to prison for a few years. Their assets may also be seized.
In telemarketing fraud, telemarketers solicit payments in exchange for prizes, investment profits or other payments that never appear. It’s a specialized form of fraud that often targets the elderly. For that reason, federal and many state telemarketing fraud penalties increase substantially if the victim was over a certain age threshold. Telemarketers who defraud their clients face one to ten years in prison, as well as fines and repayments.
THEFT AND LARCENY
Theft and larceny are two names for basic stealing: taking someone else’s belongings without consent and with no intention of returning them. Grand theft is generally theft of goods with a value over a certain threshold, while petty theft is under that threshold. Grand theft or larceny is punishable by a few years in prison, while petty theft may draw a few months or up to a year in jail or prison
Wire fraud is any fraud committed over “wires” -- through telephone, Internet, television, radio and other electronic media. Because they’re almost always committed across state lines, wire fraud cases are usually federal. Wire fraud carries steep fines and penalties of up to 20 years in prison -- 30 years if a bank was defrauded.
Most crimes are handled by full-time criminal lawyers. Criminal lawyers most often ask for a retainer -- a sum of money paid at the beginning of a case, from which they subtract hourly attorney fees and other costs. If the case is long or complicated, a criminal lawyer might ask for another retainer before the case is over. The total cost may range from a few hundred dollars to $25,000, depending on the case and what services you need.
A few crimes, like securities fraud and embezzlement, are considered “white-collar” by law firms. The lawyers who defend clients from these types of charges almost always charge by the hour. The hourly rate varies from place to place, but will certainly be in the hundreds. Again, the total cost of representation is likely to be five or six figures, depending on the case.