Criminal law basics

Criminal law deals with crimes and their prosecution. A better definition would be: criminal law is that branch of public law which deals with crimes, treats of their nature and provides for their penalties.

Criminal law is a public law because it deals with the relations between the government and the people, as opposed to private law which deals with the relations between and among people. Contract law, therefore, is a private law.

A crime is an act or omission in violation of a law that punishes it. Therefore, something is not a crime if there is no law punishing it. It is the punishment that separates a crime from a non-crime. There are, of course, acts or omissions that may result in injury to another person but is not covered by criminal law. These are not punishable -- in the sense of imprisonment or fine -- but they are, nevertheless, actionable. The aggrieved party may go to court to ask for compensation, restitution, indemnification and other reliefs.

Punishment for laws may be deprivation of liberty (imprisonment) or property (fine). If there is no law punishing an act, there can be no imposition of imprisonment or fine (in the criminal law sense).

Each single crime is an outrage against the State for which the latter, thru the courts of justice, has the power to impose the appropriate penal sanctions. (People v. Peralta, G.R. No. L-19069, October 29, 1968) Therefore, academically speaking, the victim of a crime is the State. This is why criminal cases are docketed as "PEOPLE V. JUAN DELA CRUZ."

The person suffering injury because of the crime (the rape victim, the injured person, etc.) is, academically, a witness to the crime. It is the State that has the interest to prosecute the accused.

The reason why there is a need to draw a line between crimes and non-crimes is the fact that these acts or omissions are so outrageous that the State has decided to interfere, to step in and to protect the people from their inherent or perceived dangers.

A crime can be wrongful by nature or wrongful by law. The first is called "malum in se" and the second is called "malum prohibitum."

A crime malum in se is wrongful by its nature. It is so shocking and appalling that most civilized societies have decided to condemn and punish it. On the other hand, a crime malum prohibitum is one that is wrongful only because it is considered so by law.

An example of the first one is the crime of killing. An example of the second one is possession of lock picks and false keys. It is not inherently wrong to possess lock picks but the law says it should be punished.

Another example of a crime malum prohibitum is the issuance of bouncing checks under Batas Pambansa Bilang No. 22 (also known as the "bouncing checks law").