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What is Criminal Law in North Carolina?


A lot of people who first talk to a criminal defense lawyer have little to no experience with criminal law in North Carolina. For many people, being thrust into the criminal justice process is a confusing, stressful, and complexly foreign experience for them. People in this position have a lot of questions about the law, crime, and how the criminal justice process works. To help you better understand what we mean when we say “criminal law in North Carolina,” let’s take a look at a couple of basic questions.

What is criminal law in North Carolina?

When a law is passed it is written out in the form of a statute.  Some of these laws state that breaking them is a crime.  If the statute is a federal law then a violation makes it a federal crime.  Breaking a state law or a local ordinance means that the crime will be handled in state court.  Most crimes committed in Onslow county fall under North Carolina state law and will be heard in state court in Jacksonville, but offenses involving more than one state or that took place on federal land (such as a military base or a national park) go to federal court.

When the government wants to make something a crime, it has to pass a statute that sets out exactly what is being prohibited. A criminal law will specify a set of individual elements which tells the public exactly what a person must do to break that law.  When a person is accused of breaking a law they must be given a document that tells them what law they broke and what they are accused of doing.

What is the difference between civil and criminal law in North Carolina?

One issue that confuses a lot of people is the difference between civil and criminal law. When we are talking about criminal law in North Carolina, we are talking about laws that punish certain types of conduct.  Depending on the seriousness of the crime the law may be a felony, a misdemeanor or an infraction.  All criminal laws are prosecuted by the government.  A civil case is one that does not involve punishment but instead seeks redress for some sort of harm.  A civil case can be between two private persons or businesses or the government.

Sometimes a single act can result in both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit.  For example, if one person hit somebody else in the head and knocked them out, the government might try to convict them for assault in criminal court.  At the same time, the victim might file a lawsuit against the person who hit them in civil court to try to get compensation for their medical bills.  Successfully suing somebody in civil court typically results in a judgment awarding some sort of monetary damages or requiring the other party to do (or not do) something.  A conviction in criminal court generally results in the defendant being put in jail, put on probation or the payment of a fine.