It is a common source of confusion for New Jersey residents and even attorneys. Is there any difference between crimes and offenses? Part of the confusion stems from popular television shows, which do not always follow the traditional legal rules for the sake of entertainment. In addition, attorneys may be confused because each state has its own criminal laws, which can include their own separate definitions for crimes.  To understand what the differences are, this blog post will look at the overall criminal law system in the United States and compare it to the criminal system here in New Jersey.

Crimes in the United States

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The United States criminal law system can be traced back to England with certain remnants of the English criminal system still in place today.  However, there has been a considerable amount of time since the United States has established its own independence, and it would no longer be accurate to compare our criminal justice systems as equivalent. As a foundation for criminal law in the United States, we can turn to the United States Constitution. Constitutional law is a vastly complex area of law, and it would be impossible to delve into the complexities and nuances of the Constitution within the confines of this post. However, there are certain basic rights available to citizens during the criminal justice process according to the Constitution. The Constitution:

  • Guarantees a fair process in all hearings
  • Guarantees equal treatment under the law
  • Provides for a pretrial hearing by a grand jury in felony cases
  • Outlaws a second trial for the same crime (double jeopardy)
  • Protects suspects from having to answer questions, which could be used against them
  • Guarantees fair proceedings when people are threatened by a loss of life, liberty, or property by the government
  • Ensures compensation for people whose property is taken by the government
  • Protects people from unreasonable police searches and seizures
  • Sets requirements for search warrants
  • Requires a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury
  • Requires someone accused of a crime to be informed of the charges and evidence
  • Requires that the accused be present when witnesses testify against him/her
  • Provides for the accused to have a lawyer and call witnesses in defense
  • Requires the courts to set reasonable and consistent bail
  • Requires the courts to suit the sentence to the crime.

Out of all of these rights provided in the Constitution one of the most important as it pertains to citizens is found in the Fifth Amendment.  The Fifth Amendment provides in its entirety:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Fifth Amendment provides one of the most important Constitutional protections — the right to due process. In its simplest definition, due process means the right to a trail.

The United States Criminal Justice system has distinguished certain classifications of crimes over the years, and can be broken down as follows:

  • Misdemeanors – Misdemeanors are less serious on the ladder of criminal activity, and generally carry a prison sentence of fewer than twelve months. Some of the most common forms of misdemeanors include battery, possession of marijuana, and driving while intoxicated. However, in certain circumstances, a misdemeanor can be elevated to a felony.
  • Felonies and Capital Crimes – These are the most serious crimes in the American criminal justice system and are ones that you can receive more than one year in prison for if convicted. These crimes include murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, and grand theft. Capital crimes are generally the more serious of the two crimes and are crimes that can incur a death sentence. Currently, the United States Federal Government lists 41 capital offenses.
  • Infractions – Infractions are the least serious criminal offense under the federal system. These crimes often do not carry a prison sentence. Infractions are generally considered to be regulatory and can include such actions as running a stop sign, violating noise ordinances, or even speeding.

It is important to note that these classifications are based on the federal criminal justice system and not the states. While a state may choose to adopt and or follow the federal system exactly, the states are also free to administer their own criminal systems within the confines of the United States Constitution.

New Jersey Criminal Classifications

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To begin with any explanation of the New Jersey criminal justice system as compared to the Federal, it is important to understand that New Jersey and the other states have a considerable amount of autonomy and authority to police their own citizens. This authority is found in the text of the U.S Constitution in the Tenth Amendment, which gives states the rights and powers “not delegated to the United States.” States are thus granted the power to establish and enforce laws protecting the welfare, safety, and health of the public. This Constitutional power appropriately was known as the “Police Power” gives States, like New Jersey, their authority to regulate their own citizens, including creating their own criminal laws.

New Jersey has its own constitution, which was first ratified a few days before the United States Constitution on July 2, 1776. The current form of the New Jersey constitution was issued in 1947 and had been amended several times since. If you were to read the New Jersey Constitution and the United States Constitution side by side, you might be surprised that there are many parts that are exactly the same. However, there are several unique provisions in the New Jersey Constitution, which deviate from the United States Constitution. Justice Stein of the New Jersey Supreme Court said: “[b]ecause a state constitution may afford enhanced protection for individual liberties, we ‘should not uncritically adopt federal constitutional interpretations for the New Jersey Constitution merely for the sake of consistency.’ ” State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95, 99, 519 A.2d 820, 823 (1987) (citing State v. Hunt, 91 N.J. 338, 355, 450 A.2d 952, 969 (1982)).

Notably, the New Jersey State Constitution provides the following rights to criminal defendants:

  • Due Process; Due Process is a basic constitutional right that all individuals enjoy that affords them a proper Notice of a hearing and an actual Hearing before a sentence may be imposed upon them;
  • Right to a Trial and Right to an Attorney;
  • Right to Remain Silent;
  • Right to a speedy trial after arrest or indictment – prevent prosecution delay or lengthy incarceration;
  • Right to confront witnesses;
  • Right against self-incrimination;
  • Right to appeal

Similar to the Federal system, New Jersey also has its own classification for crimes, with some notable differences. In the State of New Jersey, Criminal Code violations are categorized as “indictable,” “disorderly persons” or “petty disorderly persons” offenses rather than felonies or misdemeanors.

The first key distinction for New Jersey criminal defendants is New Jersey’s classification of indictable offenses. In State v. Doyle, the New Jersey courts recognized that indictable offenses or crimes in New Jersey are “equatable” to felonies. 200 A.2d 606 (N.J. 1964) All persons accused of indictable offenses or crimes are entitled to an indictment by a grand jury or a trial by jury. Indictable offenses are comparable to felonies in other states and under the federal system, in that they incur at least a one-year prison sentence upon conviction. Indictable offenses are further broken down into the following degrees:

  • First-degree indictable offenses – These are the most severe crimes and include rape, murder, and manslaughter. They carry a sentence of between 10 years and life, as well as possible fines of up to $200,000.
  • Second-degree indictable offenses – Crimes in this category are less severe and include sex crimes, aggravated arson, kidnapping and white-collar crimes, amongst others. These crimes can lead to a sentence of 5 – 10 years and a possible fine of up to $150,000.
  • Third-degree indictable offenses – This category includes arson, possession of a controlled substance and some more severe DUI offenses. If convicted, these offenses can lead to a 3-5 year prison sentence and fine of up to $15,000.
  • Fourth-degree indictable offenses – These are the least severe of the felony-level crimes and include stalking, some robbery offenses, forgery and some DUI offenses that don’t qualify to be third-degree crimes. A conviction of this offense can include up to 18 months in prison and a fine not exceeding $10,000.

Non-Indictable offenses are not presented to a Grand Jury, and defendants charged with Disorderly or Petty Disorderly Persons offenses are not afforded a Trial by Jury.

Petty disorderly person offenses are the least serious New Jersey criminal offense that can incur a prison sentence. Petty disorderly offenses include disorderly conduct and harassment. Petty disorderly person offenses are punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $500.

Disorderly person offenses are more serious offenses than petty disorderly person offenses and are punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000.

  • Some of the most common disorderly person’s offenses include the following:
  • Possession of Marijuana (under 50 grams)
  • Possession of Drug Paraphernalia
  • Harassment
  • Simple Assault
  • Disorderly Conduct
  • Possession of a Fake ID
  • Underage Possession of Alcohol
  • Shoplifting (in an amount less than $200)

While these distinctions may seem minor, when it comes to your freedom and your criminal record, understanding the differences between them is crucial.

Our Criminal Defense Lawyers Handle an Array of Criminal Charges.

An Atlantic City criminal defense lawyer of the Law Offices of John J. Zarych is available to address a number of your criminal defense concerns. We are proud to represent individuals charged with serious crimes, known as indictable offenses or misdemeanors, in New Jersey Superior Court. We are also proud to represent individuals charged with lesser offenses in the relevant municipal court. We offer free and confidential initial consultations. If you are seeking aggressive and strategic criminal defense representation, call us at (609) 616-4956.