By almost any measure, the United States is the most litigious country in the world. If you ever find yourself in the position of being involved in a trial, its important that you have a basic understand of what will be involved.
Types of Trials
There are many kinds of trials that take place in United States courtrooms every day. All trial types, however, can be categorized into 4 different case types: civil, criminal, juvenile and traffic.
Civil Case – A trial that consists of a disagreement between two or more people or businesses. Examples: disputes between a landlord and tenant, divorce actions, small claims cases and a case where one person is suing another for damages.
Criminal Case – A trial involving a person who has been accused of committing either a misdemeanor or a felony offense.
Juvenile Case – A trial that usually involves a minor who is under the age of seventeen. Juvenile cases are heard by the family division of the circuit court. There are three types of juvenile cases: juvenile delinquency, child protective hearings and traffic cases.
Traffic Case – This is the most common type of trial, related to a traffic violation. A traffic violation can be considered either a civil infraction or a misdemeanor.
Basic Trial Procedure
1. Selection of a Jury – Jurors are selected for a trial from a pool of available jurors. The judge and attorneys question prospective jurors to find out if a juror has a personal interest in the trial, or a prejudice or bias that may influence them during the course of the trial. The attorneys may challenge undesirable jurors and ask that they be excused from the trial.
2. Opening Statements – Each side begins the trial by outlining the proof that they will present to the jury during the course of the trial. Opening statements are not to be considered evidence, only the expectations of what each side hopes to prove throughout the trial.
3. Presentation of Evidence and Testimony of Witnesses – The plaintiff or prosecution begins the trial by presenting their case first. When a witness is called to testify in a trial, the side that called the witness first asks questions in direct examination. The opposing side then has their opportunity to ask questions in a cross-examination of the witness. Any physical evidence: documents, weapons or photographs, for example, are admitted numbered for identification to be presented in the trial.
During the trial, if an attorney finds objection to a question that is being asked to a witness, they present their objection to the judge. Questions that are objected to are of legal technicality, and may be argued out of the trial. The judge will then let the jury know of any pertinent information needed to make their decision, or instruct them to disregard anything that is not relevant to the trial. The judge’s ruling to either sustain or overrule an objection is decided by applying the law that either permits or does not permit the question to be asked or answered during a trial.
When each side has presented all their evidence pertaining to the trial, they “rest” their case.
4. Closing Arguments – The attorneys summarize the evidence that was presented throughout the trial and try to persuade the jury to find in favor of the client they are representing. Since plaintiff has the burden of proof, their side has the first opportunity to open and close the trial.
5. Presentation of Jury Instructions (Charging the Jury) – The judge reads the instructions of law to the jury, defines all issues the jurors must decide on and informs them of the law that governs their specific trial. Jurors are not allowed to decide the outcome of trials based on how they would like the laws to be, but rather on as the laws are. This is the sworn duty of the jury, taken before every trial.
6. Deliberation – The jury retires to a deliberation room to consider the trial and reach a verdict. First, the jury elects a foreperson who ensures discussions regarding the trial are conducted in a sensible and orderly fashion, all issues presented during the trial are fully and fairly discussed, and that every juror is given a fair chance to participate. If the jurors have a question about any part of the trial during their deliberation, they may write it down and have the bailiff deliver it to the judge.
Most states require that a 12-person jury find the trial in favor unanimously for either the plaintiff or defendant. Some states, however, allow for a trial’s decision to be based on a majority as low as 7. If the jury fails to reach a unanimous (or, if applicable, a sufficient majority) verdict and finds itself at a standstill (what is known as a hung jury), then the judge can declare a mistrial. If a mistrial should is declared, the trial may be simply dismissed, or the trial may have to start over again from the jury selection stage.
When a verdict for the trial has been reached, the jurors that agree with the verdict sign the form and notify the bailiff. The clerk then reads the verdict aloud, and the judge dismisses the jurors from the trial.
Legal Language Services has set up a list of crimes and what each crime entails. This is by no means a complete list, merely a listing of the most commonly committed crimes. Some of the more involved crimes are accompanied with examples for clarification.
Aiding and Abetting/Accessory – Aiding and abetting or accessory to a crime is when a person knowingly assists with the commitment of an actual crime, whether through their advice, actions, or financial backing. The person need not be present when the crime is actually committed to be charged with aiding and abetting or accessory, merely involved somehow in any part of the committed crime. If the person’s level of involvement in the crime is high enough, they could be charged with conspiracy rather than aiding and abetting or accessory.
Example: Arthur lends Bobby his car, knowing full well that Bobby will be using the car as a getaway vehicle after Bobby robs a bank. Once Bobby has the stolen money, Arthur agrees to let him hide the money at his house. If Bobby is caught and charged with the robbery, Arthur could be charged with aiding and abetting, or acting as an accessory to the robbery.
Arson – The laws of most states consider arson to be when a person intentionally sets fire to any structure or building, most commonly a house or business. Most states recognize varying degrees of arson. The severity depends on such factors as the building being occupied at the time of the arson and if the arson was committed to perpetuate insurance fraud.
Assault and Battery – The crime of assault and battery is committed when someone attempts to or actually does physically strike another person. It is also considered assault and battery when someone acts in a threatening manner towards another person, with the implication of physical violence. When someone attempts or actually does cause severe injury to another person, or uses a deadly weapon, the assault and battery is called “aggravated.”
Bribery – Bribery occurs when there is an offer or acceptance of something of value for influence on a government/public official or employee. Bribes can be any form of gift or payment of money in exchange for some sort of favorable treatment, like the award of a government contract. In most cases, the person offering the bribe and the person accepting the bribe can both be charged with bribery.
Burglary – Burglary is defined as the entry into almost any structure (not just a home or business) with the intent to commit a crime once inside (not just theft). Although it is often referred to as “breaking and entering,” no actual physical breaking is required; the offender can even walk through an open door. Burglary differs from robbery, which involves use of force or fear to obtain another person’s property. During a burglary, there is usually no victim present at the time of the crime.
Example: Charles enters Diane’s house through an open window with the intent of stealing Diane’s jewelry. Upon hearing a car pull up, Charles becomes nervous and leaves before he was able to grab the jewelry. Even though Charles didn’t actually take anything, he has committed burglary.
Child Abuse – Child abuse is broadly defined as any type of cruelty inflicted upon a child, be it mental, physical or sexual abuse, neglect or exploitation. The specific crimes can be charged in instances of child abuse, including sexual assault and assault and battery. In many states, certain individuals and caregivers, such as doctors and teachers, are required by law to report what they suspect may be child abuse.
Child Pornography – It is a crime to produce, possess, distribute or sell pornographic materials that exploit or portray a minor. With the leaps that technology has made, child pornography laws are increasingly being utilized to punish those who obtain, share or distribute pornographic material involving children over the Internet, including images and films.
Computer Crime – This is probably the crime that has seen the biggest leap of occurrences in the shortest amount of time. Computer crime consists of a person performing certain acts without the proper authorization, including: accessing a computer, system or network; modifying, damaging, using, disclosing, copying or taking programs or data; purposefully introducing a virus or other contaminant into a computer system; using a computer in a scheme to defraud; interfering with someone else’s computer access or use; using encryption in aid of a crime; falsifying e-mail source information; and stealing an information service from a provider.
Conspiracy – A conspiracy occurs when two or more people make a plan to commit an unlawful act, and take some type of action toward committing it. The action doesn’t have to be a crime itself; it just has to show that the people involved knew about the plan and intended to break the law. A person can be charged with and convicted of both the conspiracy and the crime that was originally planned.
Example: Colin, Doug, and Fran are planning a bank robbery. In the process of their planning, they: go to the bank to plan around security; chip in together to buy guns; and write out a letter to give to the clerk. All three of them can be charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, even though the actual robbery never occurred.
Credit/Debit Card Fraud – Credit/debit card fraud is when someone: obtains, takes, signs, uses, sells, buys, or forges someone else’s credit or debit card or card information under false pretenses; uses their own card, knowing that it is not a valid card; or takes payment from another person with the knowledge that the card being used was illegally obtained.
Disorderly Conduct – Nearly every state has a disorderly conduct law, making it a crime to be drunk in public, disturb the peace or loiter in specific spots. There are a lot of different types of unruly behavior that can fit the definition of disorderly conduct. The purpose of such statutes is as a “catch-all” law. Police will usually charge a person with disorderly conduct to be able to keep the peace if that person is behaving in an undesirable way, but is of no serious danger.
Domestic Violence – Domestic violence constitutes inflicting physical or mental harm on a member of your household or family (most commonly between spouses). The actual crime charged would vary, based on factors such as: the severity of the victim’s injuries, if there was a minor present and whether a restraining order was violated in the process.
Drug Cultivation and Manufacturing – Specific drug laws make it a crime to grow or possess plants and other natural elements used to produce unlawful controlled substances, such as marijuana plants and seeds; and to manufacture any illegal controlled substances like cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD and Ecstasy.
Drug Distribution/Trafficking – Drug distribution/trafficking is the selling, transportation or illegal import of any unlawful controlled substances into the United States. Federal and state drug distribution/trafficking laws and punishments will vary depending on the type of drug, amount, area of distribution and if minors were targeted.
Drug Possession – Drug possession laws make it illegal to knowingly possess any illegal substances (marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, “club drugs” and heroin, for example). The laws also state that the possession of the chemicals used for making the drugs and accessories related to drug use is also a crime. Possession of smaller quantities is usually considered simple possession, while possessing large amounts can result in being charged with possession with intent to distribute.
Kidnapping – Kidnapping is, most commonly, taking a person somewhere against their will, or confining a person within a specified place. If a parent has no custody rights, they can be charged with kidnapping if they take their own child.
Manslaughter: Involuntary – Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing resulting from reckless or negligent behavior, or an act that is considered a minor felony, like a DUI. The main distinction of an involuntary manslaughter is the victim’s death is unintentional.
Example: Fred gets behind the wheel of his car while intoxicated. While driving, he starts to speed and swerve, and accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian. Fred can then be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Manslaughter: Voluntary – Voluntary manslaughter differs from involuntary manslaughter, in that the victim’s death is intentional. However, voluntary manslaughter is not planned ahead of time. These killings are often referred to as “heat of passion” murders. Circumstances that cause the killing to occur must be the kind that would make an otherwise reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally unbalanced.
Example: George comes home from work and finds his wife cheating on him with another man. An argument ensues, and an enraged George takes a baseball bat from the garage and strikes the other man in the head, killing him. Due to the circumstances, George would be charged with voluntary manslaughter.
Murder: First Degree – First-degree murder is a killing that is premeditated, meaning it was committed after careful thought and planning.
Example: Harold is cheated out of a large sum of money by a business partner. After planning for five days, Harold waits for his business partner in a parking garage and shoots him. Harold would then be charged with first-degree murder.
Most states also have what is called the “felony murder rule.” Under this rule, first-degree murder is committed if a death (even accidental) results from committing certain felonies like arson, burglary, kidnapping, rape or robbery.
Example: Sharon sets fire to a warehouse that she thought was empty. However, the fire kills a night watchman who was unable to get out in time. Under the felony murder rule, Sharon would be charged with first-degree murder for the night watchman’s death, even though it was accidental.
Murder: Second degree – Second-degree murder is an intentional killing that is not premeditated, nor is it committed in a reasonable “heat of passion” moment; or a killing due to dangerous conduct and the killer’s carelessness for human life. The best way to think of second-degree would be as somewhere between first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
Perjury – Perjury laws make it illegal to knowingly tell a lie after you have taken an oath to be truthful, most commonly when testifying in a court. Usually to be considered perjury, the lie must be pertinent to the matter at hand, although perjury can also be committed if you even sign a document knowing that it contains false statements.
Robbery – Robbery is defined as theft through the use of actual physical force or threat of violence against the victim. If a weapon is used or the victim is injured, the robbery is considered “armed” or “aggravated.” Robbery, unlike burglary, requires that there be an actual victim present who suffers injury or is threatened with harm.
Sexual Assault – Specifics may vary from state to state, but sexual assault is generally any crime that the victim is subjected to unwanted sexual touching. Common crimes in which sexual assault can occur range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape.
Theft/Larceny – Theft/larceny is taking almost anything of value, without the consent of the owner. Most states have degrees of theft, like “grand” or “petty.” The degrees usually have a relation to the value of what was taken.