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Understanding Some Basic Criminal Law Terms

If you have been charged with a criminal offense, then you may be very confused about the actual charges that you are charged with. There are a wide variety of words that are used that may be very confusing to you. This is common and may make the entire process confusing when you consider how much trouble you are truly in. Keep reading to learn about a few of the most basic terms that you should understand.

Offense Terms

When you are charged with a crime, you will be charged with a specific offense. Offenses are placed into separate categories that can help you to understand the severity. The offenses consist of infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies.

Most people are familiar with infractions. Infractions are crimes that are not serious and involve some sort of fine. The lowest level of an infraction is a civil infraction. This is when you technically commit a crime, but you will likely only need to pay a small fine. Littering, jaywalking, disturbing the peace, and violating a building code are seen as civil infractions. Vehicle infractions are a step up from civil ones and include speeding, not abiding by road signs, and other violations.

The next, most serious offense category is the misdemeanor. Misdemeanors may be settled with fines alone or with a fine and a small amount of jail time. Unlike infraction fines, misdemeanor ones can be quite hefty. This depends on the class of the misdemeanor. Classes also signify the severity of the crime and are labeled A, B, and C or I, II, and III. This depends on the state where you live. Class A or Class I misdemeanors are the most serious and are more likely to carry jail time than a Class C or Class III crime. A few common Class A misdemeanors include burglary, perjury, resisting arrest, and possession of a controlled substance.

The last category is reserved for if you have committed a serious crime like murder, manslaughter, car theft, forgery, and/or counterfeiting. Since felonies are the most serious offenses, they often come with mandatory jail sentences and fines. They are classified in the same way as felonies with Class A felonies carrying the largest punishments. 

Aggravation Terms

Sometimes a crime may be called an aggravated offense. This means that it is more serious than a basic one. Aggravated means that there are special circumstances surrounding the crime that make it worse in the eyes of the law. In many cases, a simple misdemeanor can be elevated to a felony due to certain circumstances. For example, if you use a lead a pipe to hit someone over the head during a physical altercation, then the weapon is the aggravating factor that may elevate your offense to aggravated assault. 

Your state of mind or intent can also be an aggravating factor. For example, if you were beating someone in an attempt to seriously injury them, then this is assault. If your intent was to murder them, then you may be charged with aggravated assault as well as attempted murder, both of which are felony charges. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may hear someone talk about mitigating or extenuating circumstances. Both of these terms are ones that are used by lawyers to describe a lessened severity of the situation. Mitigating circumstances may be used to lessen the severity of a crime. For example, a charge may be reduced to a misdemeanor based on the situation. If you picked up a stick to defend yourself against someone trying to fight you, then you technically used a weapon against them. As a "black and white" scenario, you committed aggravated assault. However, the extenuating circumstances are the fact that you decided to use the stick to protect yourself and you also did not do this with any forethought. In other words, no malice was intended. 

If you have been charged with any sort of misdemeanor or felony criminal offense, then it is best to speak to a criminal law attorney who can explain all the details of the situation and what they mean.