Criminal punishments for crimes are outlined in the United State's Criminal Code. For each crime committed there are a variety of defenses a defendant may use to prove his innocence, argue for the case to be dismissed or have his sentence reduced. For the criminal defendant to be found guilty the prosecuting attorney must prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Listed below are various criminal defenses a defendant may use to increase doubt in the minds of the jury.
Most jurisdictions follow the popular definition of insanity which is "the inability to distinguish right from wrong." This argument is based on the assumption that individuals should not be punished for their criminal actions if they were not sane at the time the crime was committed. Laws in certain states have been amended to include "diminished capacity" or "guilty but mentally ill".
Healthcare professionals will evaluate a defendant and determine their current mental state as well as their mental health at the time the crime was committed. The insanity defense is not used very frequently, but if the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity they may be sent to a mental health facility for treatment instead of prison.
The defense of intoxication will not be enough to excuse all criminal conduct because the law assumes individuals understand that drinking or taking drugs may limit their decision making ability. Intoxication, however, may allow someone to argue they were not capable of intent to commit a crime. For example if someone kills another person and they were drunk or on drugs they may be able to prove that a charge for murder was actually manslaughter because they did not have the intent to kill them. Intoxication may be considered a mitigating factor and allow their sentence to be reduced.
Mitigating factors are additional factors given to the jury or trier of fact prior to sentencing that may influence punishment assessed for the crime. Mitigating factors may include any type of special circumstances about the crime, the defendant's record, their mental state or their age of the defendant at the time the crime was committed. They may also consider if the defendant was a major or minor participant in the crime. Different states have varying methods for juries to assess mitigating factors.
Mitigating factors are commonly used in death penalty cases to decide if a defendant should be sentenced to life in prison or executed for murder. They are also used to argue diminished capacity for an individual who may have been intoxicated or had a diminished mental capacity at the time a crime was committed.
Coercion is defined as being under duress at the time a crime is committed. A defendant may only argue duress if they believed their life or that of another individual was in immediate peril. Defendants can not use duress as a defense in the most serious crimes such as treason, murder or attempted murder.
If the defendant argues they were under duress at the time a crime was committed the courts will evaluate their physical ability, mental health, age and whether or not they were pregnant to determine if someone in a similar circumstance would have behaved in a like minded manner. The courts will also determine if the defendant had a safe method of escape. The duress defense must be for a specific crime, such as robbing a bank at gun point.
Laws regarding self defense vary from state to state, but in most states, an individual is allowed to use physical force to defend themselves in proportion to the threat of force against them. Deadly physical force is usually only allowed if you believe you or another person may be killed or badly injured if you use a lesser degree of force. Some jurisdictions require individuals to retreat if at all possible to avoid the confrontation.
Certain states have recently changed their laws to include the use of deadly physical force against an intruder if they believe they have entered their home illegally and intend to commit a criminal act against them or any other member of their family. These changes signify the courts assumption that a family has the right to absolute safety in their house.
Entrapment is a defense which argues a defendant was induced by a government official to commit a crime they would not have otherwise committed. Entrapment might occur if the government not only provided the opportunity to commit the crime but also put the idea in the mind of the defendant, and convinced him to commit a crime he would not otherwise have committed.For example it is not entrapment if an undercover police officer arranges a drug sale and the defendant is arrested at the time of the transaction if the individual was willing to commit the crime.
A defendant may argue vagueness if the law or statute is so vague that a reasonable person is unable to determine the meaning of the law. Vagueness may also be used if the law is arbitrarily enforced. The vagueness has been argued in recent court cases for charges such as loitering or lewd conduct.
Defense of Property
Defense of property laws are used by defendants to argue that they are not guilty for injuries of trespassers. The laws regarding defense of property vary by jurisdiction. Some states may allow lethal force only if you feel your life or that of a third party is threatened. Defense of property laws do not include the use of booby traps to catch trespassers.
Do I Need a Criminal Defense Attorney?
If you have been charged with a criminal act it is important to talk to a criminal law attorney. The Penal code and the criminal process can be very difficult to navigate on your own. A criminal law attorney can advise you are the best way to defend yourself.