What is a Criminal Code?

G. Wiesen

A criminal code is typically the set of laws established by a country, usually through the federal government, which governs the whole of that nation. As such, these laws vary among countries, and the way that federal laws can relate to state, province, or city laws is often dictated by the country in which the laws exist. A criminal code for a country can be established by that country’s constitution or other major document, and is typically explicitly stated for use in federal courts of law and as a source of legal authority.

In Germany, the rise of the Nazi regime prior to World War II has had a lasting impact on the country’s laws.
In Germany, the rise of the Nazi regime prior to World War II has had a lasting impact on the country’s laws.

Depending on the country, a nation’s criminal code can often override the individual laws of the various states or provinces within that country. Other nations may often allow the laws of local regions to override those established by the country’s criminal codes. In Canada, for example, the criminal codes are established by “An Act respecting the criminal law” that, among other things, indicates that polygamy is illegal. There are a number of situations, however, in different provinces throughout Canada of polygamous marriages being entered into legally. In these situations, though the criminal code of the country should override local practices, they instead allow such things to reinforce the mutable nature of the laws.

Criminal codes often address drug use and distribution.
Criminal codes often address drug use and distribution.

On the other hand, within the United States (US), the criminal code effectively overrides any state or local laws that contradict what is set down in federal law. This has led to a number of issues with things such as the legalization of marijuana. At a federal level, it is illegal to grow and sell marijuana, but several states have legalized the practice for medicinal purposes. This means that while someone can go through proper channels and legally grow marijuana at a state level, federal agencies can still arrest and charge someone with breaking the US criminal code.

A country’s criminal code can also often be reflective of the history of that nation. In Germany, for example, the rise of the Nazi regime prior to World War II has had a lasting impact on the country’s laws. German criminal code, referred to as the Strafgesetzbuch, has criminalized the display of symbols of unconstitutional organizations such as the Third Reich. This has made the Nazi Swastika an illegal image, and led to a number of video games and other types of entertainment being confiscated. These criminal codes have also established that it is illegal in Germany to deny the genocide committed by the Nazi party.

Depending on how it is used, the swastika symbol of the Nazis is sometimes illegal to display in Germany.
Depending on how it is used, the swastika symbol of the Nazis is sometimes illegal to display in Germany.

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Discussion Comments


@miriam98 - There are only a handful of states that allow medical marijuana. While the federal government still considers it an illegal substance, I doubt that they are just going to raid the establishments of doctors that use marijuana for medicine.

They might instead choose to raid drug dealer’s havens or things like that. I think this is the way that the federal government can maintain the balance of the struggle between federal and state laws on this issue. It should be clear to anyone whether marijuana is being used in a medical sense or not.


@allenJo - I didn’t know that in Germany you can level criminal code charges against someone for displaying a swastika. By a strange turn of events, then, Germans have less freedom of speech there than there is in the United States, because I think you can display such images here without fear of reprisal (depending on the context, I would guess).

However I understand why Germans would ban the image. That’s part of their history that they are not proud of. At least there are no “holocaust deniers” in Germany.


@nony - Your argument doesn’t really make sense. You said that Arizona was trying to enforce existing laws about immigration. This isn’t really a conflict, then, is it?

We don’t have two sets of laws here. We have a federal government that wasn’t enforcing existing laws and a state that chose to do so. It’s about enforcement not a conflict of laws the way that I see it.

You can make the case that it was still the federal government's role to decide how they wanted to enforce the laws, but the laws were the same either way.


The conflict between the federal criminal code and state laws can be the source of ongoing friction and debate. The AZ criminal code is one such example in my opinion. All they were trying to do was to enforce existing laws on the books about immigration, but the federal government stepped in and said that they couldn’t do that, it was within the purview of the federal government.

As much as I would normally side with Arizona’s position, I have to agree with the federal government on this one, and I am normally a state’s rights kind of guy. The federal government is responsible for immigration enforcement. States may have their own laws but they have to be subordinate to those of the federal government.

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