Not everyone can know all there is to understand about the law. There's so much out there to understand, that even attorneys focus on a small area of the law to practice in, like wills, or corporate law, or criminal defense. However, there are some, basic legal ideas that at least most Americans should be aware of, because if they're not, it can really impact how the legal system works.
One of these things that people should understand is that there's a huge difference between an arrest and a conviction for a crime. Here's how they're different.
People get arrested all the time. Police officers are supposed to make arrests whenever they have the remotest suspicion that someone has committed a crime. Sometimes, police officers will even make an arrest when they know that no crime has been committed, but they just want to incapacitate someone, like in the heat of a protest. Oftentimes, the number of arrests an officer makes is used to determine how well he or she is doing on the job, so making more arrests is a great way to get promoted in the department. Just like a salesman looks for every opportunity to sell something, a police officer is often looking for every opportunity to arrest someone.
Unfortunately, police officers are wrong a lot of the time, and the person they arrested didn't commit a crime.
Unlike arrests, which happen whenever a police officer has the slightest suspicion that a crime's been committed, convictions occur after a prosecutor has reviewed the arrest, formally accused that person of committing the crime, and then provided evidence to a group of jurors who were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime occurred.
The Difference Between the Two, and Why It's Important
As you can see, there's a huge jump between what's required to arrest someone for a crime, and what's required to convict someone for a crime. An arrest only takes a police officer, who wants to make arrests, to see an opportunity to make one. A conviction requires a prosecutor to formally back up the police officer's actions, and a jury to determine that there was a crime, no reasonable doubt about it.
It's vitally important for us to remember that, when someone has been arrested, it does not mean that they've committed a crime. Being considered a criminal has a huge social stigma to it. People don't respect you the same way they respect non-criminals. Being arrested for a crime, though, does not make anyone a criminal. Only being convicted for a crime can do that. Therefore, it's important to treat people who have been merely arrested for a crime no differently than you would treat anyone else, because it hasn't been proven that they've done anything wrong.
William T. Bly is a criminal defense attorney, based in Biddeford, Maine. As one of southern Maine's premier criminal defense attorneys, he deals with arrests and defends against the possibility of criminal convictions all the time. Contact his law office online, or call (207) 571-8146.