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for other uses please see Crime (disambiguation)
Common stereotype of a criminal
Common stereotype of a criminal

A crime in a broad sense is an act that violates a political or moral law. In the narrow sense, a crime is a violation of the criminal law. For example, most traffic violations or breach of contract are not crimes in legal sense.


Definition of crime

This section describes usual criminal classifications applicable at present in Western countries. They may differ significantly with those applicable in other cultures; also, they may differ significantly with earlier practices.

General rules

A crime can be the action of violating or breaking a law. According to Western jurisprudence, there must be a simultaneous concurrence of both actus reus ("guilty action") and mens rea ("guilty mind") for a crime to have been committed; except in crimes of strict liability. In order for prosecution, some laws require proof of causality, relating the defendant's actions to the criminal event in question. In addition, some laws require that attendant circumstances have occurred, in order for a crime to have occurred. Also, in order for a crime to be prosecuted, corpus delicti (or "proof of a crime") must be established.

It may also be a crime to conspire in order to commit other crimes, or helping others to commit crimes (which makes one an accomplice); in some systems the simple association for organising a crime is punished. The attempt to commit a crime may to be punished, even if the crime is not completed (in California, e.g., the punishment can be half of that for the crime itself [1]); for instance, it is generally a crime to attempt to murder someone, even if one has not succeeded in doing so.

In general, in most western systems, the definition of a crime requires the existing intention of committing it (voluntas necandi) in the author, therefore it is usually not punished when this intention is missing or when the author has not a complete mental sanity or is under a certain age. For instance, there generally exists an insanity defense: a mad person is not penally responsible for his or her actions. Similarly, one is generally not responsible for actions that one was forced to accomplish by an external power.

In Western systems the penal responsibility is personal: one can only be punished for one's crimes, not for those of one's family, friends, etc. Increasing penalties or criminalizing actions retroactively, through an ex post facto law, is forbidden so that no one can be punished for a fact that the penal law did not already describe as a crime at the moment in which the crime was committed. On the other hand, many systems absolve people of crimes if a law is passed that removes the criminal qualifications for those actions, even if the actions were accomplished prior to the law.

Reasons for criminalizing actions

Crimes are viewed as offenses against society, and as such are punished by the state. They can be scholastically distinguished, depending on the passive subject of the crime (the victim), or on the offended interest, in crimes against:

Or they can be distinguished depending on the related punishment (then, on the degree of offense that the forbidden behaviour caused), in delicts and violations.

The definition of a crime generally reflects the current attitudes prevalent in a society. For example, possession of drugs was not always a crime, while the Prohibition Era made alcohol illegal.

Classification of crimes

Crimes can be divided into several (overlapping) categories: computer offenses, crimes against persons, crimes against property, crimes against state security, drug offenses, sexual offenses, and weapon offenses. Crimes are also be grouped by severity, some common categorical terms being: felonies, indictable offenses, misdemeanors, and summary offences. For convenience, infractions are also usually incuded in such lists, although they are not subject of the criminal law, but rather of the civil law. An inchoate offense is a planned or attempted crime, which the offender was not able to carry out prior to arrest.

The following are crimes in many jurisdictions:

Aiding and abetting

It may be a crime to aid someone else in committing a crime, or induce him or her to commit one.


Matters related to criminal behavior in society are studied in the field of sociology on the sub-field of criminology, and a person who studies this is called a criminologist. The mental state and acuity of criminals is assessed by psychologists, especially in cases wherein the insanity defense is being utilized.

The study of crime, in general, across a number of functional diciplines is often known as crime science. This draws on statistics, environmental design, forensics, policing, sociology and other sciences to analyse the crimes, rather than the offenders, and provides ways and means to prevent, detect and solve crimes.


The first civilizations had codes of law, though these codes were not always recorded. The first known written codes were written by the ancient Sumerians, and it was probably their king Ur-Nammu (reigning on Ur in the 21st century BC) the first legislator of which we received a formal system in 32 articles; it has to be recalled that this is not among the eldest laws, since not all the ancient laws are penal rules. In the antiquity, in fact, codes mostly contained both civil and penal rules together. Sumerians however later issued other codes as the one known as "code of Lipit-Istar" (last king of the 3rd dynasty of Ur, Isin - 20th century BC). This code contains some 50 articles and has been reconstructed by the comparison among several sources.

In Babylon the code of Esnunna before, and the code of Hammurabi (one of the richest ones of ancient times) after, were used and reflected society's belief that law was derived from the will of the gods.

Similarly, some codes of conduct of religious origins or reference have been included in penal codes, forbidden behaviours resulting in real crimes in the states ruled by theocracy even in more recent times.

Natural law theory of crime

An alternative view of crime is derived from the theory of natural law. In this view, crime is the violation of individual rights. Since rights are considered as natural, rather than man-made, what constitutes a crime is also natural, in contrast to laws, which are man-made. Adam Smith illustrates this view, saying a smuggler would be an excellent citizen, "had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so."

Natural law theory thus distinguishes between criminality and illegality, the former being derived from human nature, the latter being derived from the interests of those in power. The two concepts are sometimes expressed with the phrases "malum in se" and "malum prohibitum". This view leads to a seeming paradox, that an act can be illegal that is no crime, while a criminal act could be perfectly legal.

Many Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and the American Founding Fathers subscribed to this view to some extent, and it remains influential among so-called classical liberals and libertarians.

A crime malum in se is argued to be inherently criminal; whereas a crime malum prohibitum is argued to be criminal only because the law has decreed it so.

Penal law in USA

The current American legal system derives from English common law, usually case law rather than statutory law, in all states except Louisiana, which follows a French system.

Crimes are divided into categories and subcategories of definition, under which fall many specific crimes. For example, homicide is the subcategory, of the violent crimes, which includes murder, manslaughter, and in some states, self-abortion or "abortion without consent of the female". Arson and theft are examples of property crimes. Each state has its own penal law, which is frequently based on the Model Penal Code. There are also federal statutes, though the defining of federal crimes only became popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

Crimes are generally classified into different degrees of severity, including violations, misdemeanors, and felonies. Violations are punishable by a fine, misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in a state penitentiary and/ or a fine, and felonies are punishable by a year or more in a state prison and/ or a fine.

It is generally prohibited to aid or abet in a crime; if it is an offence against the US one is even punishable as a principal. [2]

See also: criminal law

See also:

External links

Last updated: 10-19-2005 12:11:28
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