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Joseph Lyons

The criminal legal process is complex and involves a lot of moving pieces. However, there are certain general concepts which apply to most criminal law. This article will discuss some general Iowa criminal law FAQs. Learn about Recent Changes to Iowa Criminal Law here.  

In this article, we cover frequently asked questions about Iowa criminal law, including:  

  • What is the difference between Criminal Law vs. Civil Law?
  • What is the burden of proof in criminal cases?
  • What does the state need to prove to convict someone of a crime?
  • What are the categories of crimes in Iowa?
  • When should someone speak with a criminal law attorney?
  • What rights do the police need to read me?
  • If I am innocent, should I still request an attorney?
  • Do the police need a warrant to conduct a search?

What is the difference between Criminal Law vs. Civil Law?

Criminal law has to do with actions made illegal by the government. In a criminal case, the government brings charges against a person because they broke a law created by federal, state, or local government. The goal of criminal law is punishment of the wrongdoer, in hopes that others will not commit crimes for fear of punishment. The punishment for these crimes is normally imprisonment or a fine.  

Civil law involves disputes between individuals, businesses, and other private entities, usually not involving the government. Examples of civil cases include divorce and child custody proceedings, landlord/tenant disputes, property issues, and personal injury cases. There is a lower burden of proof than in criminal cases, and the remedy is usually one party will have to pay the other monetary damages. Sometimes, the court may issue an injunction, an order for someone to do something or stop doing something. The result is not imprisonment, though someone could be imprisoned for intentionally violating a court order in a civil case. To learn more about civil law cases, read out article about Iowa Civil Litigation.  

What is the burden of proof in criminal cases?

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. No one is convicted of a crime unless the person’s guilt is proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means, if there are reasonable explanations for what happened, other than defendant committing the crime, the charges against defendant should be dismissed. The United States Supreme Court has also held that the state is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt every fact necessary to constitute a crime.  

What does the state need to prove to convict someone of a crime?

Most crimes have two components; a voluntary act component, and a state of mind component. The prosecutor will normally need to show the defendant committed a voluntary act, and did it with the required state of mind. For instance, in a murder case, the voluntary act could be pulling a trigger, with the state of mind being the intent to kill someone else before and while pulling the trigger.  The prosecutor will need to show that the act making up the crime actually happened, and show from the facts that the person did the action with the required state of mind. Under some circumstances, a crime may be committed by failing to act, such as failing to provide a child with food.

A defense attorney will argue the defendant did not meet either the voluntary act, or state of mind element of the crime. The attorney may argue the defendant was not the one who committed the act, or that there was some kind of justification for the act. For instance, common defenses could be that the defendant acted in self-defense, or in the defense of another person, not with the attempt to commit the crime. The defendant could also say the action was involuntary.  

Insanity is a special defense that argues, due to a mental disease or other “deranged condition,” the person was unable to distinguish right from wrong when committing the act. This condition does not need to be permanent or have existed before or after the crime. A defendant raising this defense must show, more likely than not, that it existed at the time of the crime. However, it is not a defense that a person was under the influence of intoxicants or drugs, and thus too intoxicated to form the required intent to commit a crime (though sometimes it may decrease the severity of the crime they are charged with or found guilty of).  

There are some rare crimes which do not require an element of intent, just that the event happened. These are called strict liability crimes. Most crimes involving strict liability are relatively minor, such as parking violations, minor traffic violations, etc. A notable, serious exception is statutory rape. Learn more about how Iowa law classifies committing a crime.

What are the categories of crimes in Iowa?

Felonies are generally considered more serious crimes. In Iowa, felonies are classified as A, B, C, or D, with A being the most serious. Misdemeanors in Iowa are punishable by up to two years in jail. The most serious misdemeanors in Iowa are Aggravated misdemeanors, followed by serious misdemeanors, and simple misdemeanors. Crimes less serious than misdemeanors will normally only require a fine, though there may be more serious penalties if fines remain unpaid.  

When should someone speak with a criminal law attorney?

If someone thinks they have committed a crime, or may be charged with a crime, they should contact an attorney.  

If I am innocent should I still request an attorney?

Innocent people do get arrested, and people who actually have committed crimes get accused of additional crimes they didn’t commit. Innocent persons who are arrested should ask for an attorney. Some think asking for an attorney makes them look guilty. This is not true. It is a constitutional right to have an attorney, like any other constitutional right. An attorney may still have valuable information for an innocent person, and advice on how to best navigate the situation.  Speaking to an attorney can sometimes be intimidating. Learn what happens at an initial consultation with an attorney.  

What rights do the police need to read me?

Prior to speaking with someone who has been arrested or put in custody, the officers will need to read the suspect Miranda warnings. These rights are:

  • You have the right to remain silent
  • Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law
  • You have the right to an attorney
  • If you cannot afford an attorney one will be provided for you

The officer may also ask if the suspect understands the rights, and if so, if the suspect wishes to speak with them.  

If a suspect has been arrested or put in custody by the police, the Miranda warnings must be read. The suspect must assert clearly, his or her right to remain silent and to have an attorney present. If the suspect claims both of these rights, the questions should immediately stop, and should halt until an attorney is present. The suspect should not continue conversation with the police until their attorney is present.

Miranda warnings do not apply until the person is under arrest or in custody. A person is in custody when a reasonable person would conclude they are not free to leave. Someone being placed in handcuffs or in the back of a police car may be in custody. If someone voluntarily comes and speaks to the police, and they are free to leave, they are not given the Miranda warnings. Also, if it is an emergency situation, the police may question someone without reading the Miranda warnings, but that does not mean a person has to answer the police. Learn more about your rights when pulled over in a traffic stop.

Do the police need a warrant to conduct a search?

The police often do not need a warrant to conduct a search. Times when the police do not need a warrant include consent given by an occupant of the property, evidence that is in plain view (ie, the officer is in the house for some valid reason and there’s a pile of cocaine on the table which the officer sees it), an emergency that requires a prompt action, or searching someone and the area around them upon arrest.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.


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