Criminal Law Basics

Who Makes Criminal Laws?

State legislatures and the U.S. Congress enact criminal laws. State courts have traditionally made criminal laws based on the common law (judge-made law) inherited from England.

The modern trend is for the legislature, rather than the courts, to make criminal law.

Most ordinary crimes are covered by state criminal laws. For example, a burglary that took place within a state, committed by local residents, is covered by state criminal laws and ordinarily will be prosecuted by local prosecutors.

Federal criminal laws deal with:

  • Federal property
  • Federal employees
  • Federal taxes
  • Receipt of federal benefits
  • Federally guaranteed civil rights
  • Crimes involving interstate commerce (transporting goods or individuals across state lines)

For example, it’s a federal crime to rob a U.S. Post Office or to assault a federal employee.

What are the Kinds of Crimes?

Crimes are divided into two main categories — felonies and misdemeanors — depending on the crime’s seriousness and the length of punishment.

Felonies – are crimes generally punishable by more than one year’s imprisonment. You have the right to a jury trial when charged with a felony crime. The common law felonies include:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Kidnapping
  • Treason

Misdemeanors – are crimes generally punishable by less than one year’s imprisonment.

You have the right to a jury trial when charged with a misdemeanor if the crime is considered serious enough.


Driving While Intoxicated (“DWI”) is considered a serious crime in every state. DWI and Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) refer to the same crime.

Drinking alcohol or taking drugs may affect your ability to operate cars, boats or industrial equipment in a safe manner. It is against the law in every state to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs if you cannot safely operate your vehicle.

If the police observe you driving erratically or violating traffic laws, they are permitted to stop and question you for a DWI violation. If they suspect that you are intoxicated, they can ask you to submit to various tests, including a blood alcohol test.