What is Criminal Prosecution?

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  • Written By: Alexis W.
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 20 January 2020
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Criminal prosecution involves bringing someone to trial for the violation of a criminal law. Criminal laws are legal rules imposed by the law-making body that stipulate forbidden behaviors. Violation of criminal laws can lead to penalties including fines, jail time, or even death.

Some form of criminal law exists in every country in the world. In the United States and England, for example, criminal laws are primarily derived from common law rules and criminal codes. Common law refers to case law, or law made by judges, while criminal codes refer to formal statutes passed by the legislature or law-making body.

When a person violates criminal law, he does an action that breaks one of the laws, and his forbidden action makes him susceptible to prosecution and sanctions. These sanctions are imposed by the government that passed the law. He may also be subject to a private lawsuit brought by his victim, but a different body of law — called tort law in the United States — governs private lawsuits.


Most countries provide safeguards for individuals accused of violating criminal law. In the United States, for example, the US Constitution promises that every individual is innocent until proven guilty, that everyone has a right to a fair trial by a jury of his peers, and that no one may be deprived of life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness without due process of the law. In Canada, Section Eleven of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to a fair trial, while the English Bill of Rights from 1689 created the foundation for this right in England.

Criminal prosecution is the legal term that refers to subjecting a person to his fair trial. This means that when someone is accused of a crime, the criminal prosecution is the legal action that requires him to submit to a trial. The judge or jury can then make a determination regarding his guilt or innocence.

In the United States, only a prosecutor can institute a criminal prosecution. A prosecutor is an officer of the court. A victim of a crime cannot prosecute the criminal himself, although he can "press charges," which means report the crime to the police and work with the prosecutor in the criminal prosecution.

Prosecutors must follow certain rules when prosecuting criminals to ensure the trial is fair. For example, they must disclose evidence to the accused and cannot engage in illegal actions such as coercing witnesses. The prosecutor also must prove all the elements of the crime to win the case; in the United States, for example, each element of a crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal prosecution.


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