Definitions of Crime

Criminologist Paul Tappan defines crime as “an intentional act or omission in violation of criminal law …, committed without defense or justification, and sanctioned by the state as a felony or misdemeanor.”

Misdemeanors and felonies

Possible punishments determine the differences between misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are nonserious, minor crimes that the government punishes by confinement in a local jail for a year or less. Examples include petty theft, simple assault, disorderly conduct, and disturbing the peace. Felonies are serious crimes that the government punishes by death or incarceration in a prison for at least a year. This group includes such crimes as murder, rape, robbery, and burglary.

Crimes versus torts

A crime, or public wrong, is to be distinguished from a tort, or private wrong. Actually, the same act may be both a crime and a tort. For example, O. J. Simpson's alleged killings of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman included the torts of assault, battery, and wrongful death. Simpson's alleged acts gave rise to both a criminal prosecution (seeking punishment) and a civil suit for damages.

State and federal crimes

A notable difference between state and federal crimes is that federal crimes usually include a jurisdictional element. Jurisdiction refers to the geographic or substantive range of a court's authority. The U.S. Code, for example, doesn't punish theft itself. It punishes theft from an interstate shipment or theft of government property. Federal statutes exhibit a concern for jurisdiction because the Constitution limits Congress to enacting laws about subjects falling within its specific powers. The states maintain lawmaking authority not delegated to the federal government.

When both the federal government and a state can prosecute a person for the same incident, there is overlapping jurisdiction. The Constitution permits double prosecution in such cases. Take, for example, the Rodney King beating case. The state of California prosecuted four Los Angeles police officers for assault. After an all‐white jury acquitted them, the federal government held a separate trial based on the same incident. In 1993, after an FBI investigation and federal prosecution, a multiracial jury convicted two of the officers of violating King's civil rights.