Understanding what classes you will encounter in your first year will give you the one-up on the rest of your classmates. You do not need a full, in-depth understanding about what these classes entail, especially since each law school follows a different curriculum. However, it is a good idea to understand an overview of each course so you feel comfortable on your first day and comprehend the context of this subject of law. One of the first classes you encounter as a 1L is Criminal Law.
Different than TV??
Unlike many other 1L courses like Torts, most incoming 1Ls have had the most exposure to Criminal Law and feel the most comfortable with this subject. Why is this? Well, many legal dramas revolve around crime and the legal system (think Law & Order, any detective show, etc.). However, the “criminal law” you see on TV versus the Criminal Law you will see in class and in your casebook are vastly different. Yes, there will still be crimes of murder, theft, rape, etc. but how you study them and engage in the subject are much different that how Detective Benson solves crimes. It is best to keep this in mind at the forefront, that way you aren’t confused halfway through the semester.
Common Law Rules (!)
To make law school more confusing for 1Ls, Criminal Law is divided into two jurisdiction categories: MPC-based jurisdictions (more on this in a minute) and Common Law based jurisdictions. I highly (HIGHLY) suggest separating these in your mind and notes right from the get-go because you will need to know both come exam time, and it can be very confusing trying to figure out both. Common law jurisdictions are states in which their statutes are based off the “common law” or judge’s decisions from previous cases. Basically, the common law is based on how other cases were decided and set precedent.
The Good, the Bad, and the MPC
The other side of Criminal Law is based on the MPC. In 1962, a group of Criminal Law scholars came together to create the “MPC” or the Model Penal Code. This is a code that formulates all offenses, elements, defenses, and information on crimes in a concise, organized manner. The intention was to consolidate the authority on Criminal Law so that decisions would be more regulated and consistent, rather than the Common Law counterpart. However, many states did not completely adopt the MPC but have created their own penal code with MPC influence.
Formations of an Offense
Other than the MPC/Common Law distinction, Criminal Law is broken into two sections: “General” formations of an offense and “Specific offenses.” The general formations of an offense focuses on what makes up a crime and defenses. For Common Law, in order to commit a crime, you must have the Actus Reus element (the physical act-Willed muscular contraction/movement which controlled by actor’s mind, with purpose) and the Mens Rea element (Act with intent to do or cause X, either purposefully (with a goal or desire) or knowingly (virtual certainty of doing or causing x), recklessly (should be aware of taking a risk or consciously disregards substantial risk to society), or negligently (should be aware conduct creates substantial risk to society). The MPC is similar but instead of using the archaic words of “actus reus” and “mens rea”, the MPC sticks with the four culpability mindsets, but you must prove an individual acted with a culpability mindset for each element of the crime. Further, you will also learn about defenses to crimes. Justification Defenses are available when D’s conduct was morally good/socially desirable/not wrongful and the harm is outweighed by need to avoid even greater harm and further a greater societal interest. Excuse Defenses are available when the actor committed elements of offense and his/her actions were unjustified, however, his/her mental state is not blameworthy and should not be held criminally responsible.
The final part of Criminal Law focuses on specific offenses, their elements, and defenses thereof. For these, the professor chooses which crimes to focus on since there is “so much crime and so little time” (Yes, this is what my professor said all the time.) In my class, we focused on murder, manslaughter, felony murder, and rape. Each class is different and some professors prefer to skip rape or not go into all categories of homicide and instead will focus on burglary or arson. This is the “personalized” aspect of the course but, nevertheless, you will learn how to apply the “general” aspects of Criminal Law to the specific crimes.
Criminal Law does not have to be Offensive
Although many people have exposure to Criminal Law from tv shows, Criminal Law as a concept can be extremely difficult. Many people struggle to grasp every aspect of the course, especially the distinction between the MPC and Common Law. Things will definitely be challenging at first (especially if it is your first semester!) but as long as you work hard, Criminal Law will become second nature to you! If you need help understanding, get tutoring or purchase a supplement in order to fully grasp this difficult subject.
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