General Question

Yellowdog's avatar

If someone commits a crime but the judge clears them, are they guilty of committing a crime?

Asked by Yellowdog (8270points) April 29th, 2018

Say I commit identity theft and defraud someone their tax refund.

The judge says, although I really DID do this, I was doing it FOR THE MONEY and not out of malicious intent against the person I defrauded, or something similar.

So, I am declared ‘Not Guilty” even though the act did willfully occur.

The Judge says I’m not guilty. I am completely cleared. So— AM I, then, not guilty ?

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25 Answers

Patty_Melt's avatar

We all have our authority sources.
Some feel most responsible to their god, some to their government, some to a personal sense of wrongness.

Our legal system is imperfect. That is why appeals have so much court time.

Guilt is all about who we owe for our actions.

kritiper's avatar

No. If the jury declares them innocent, “clears them,” the judge has nothing to say about it. At least, that’s how it works here in the US.
Just because the crime was committed “for the money” doesn’t mean the person who had the money taken from them was not victimized.

stanleybmanly's avatar

“If someone commits a crime” someone commits a crime This is YOUR scenario and you have stated that a crime has been committed . Any subsequent action by a judge or all the king’s horses will not cancel the initial statement.

YARNLADY's avatar

There are two definitions of the word guilty.
One is the legal, or by law and the other is the action itself, or common use. A person can by exonerated by the law but still feel guilty if they actually committed the act.

JeSuisRickSpringfield's avatar

First, in all but a few cases (called "bench trials"), it is juries, and not judges, that decide whether you are guilty or not guilty of a crime.

Second, motive is not an element of a crime. While demonstrating means, motive, and opportunity is useful for convincing a jury to convict, the actual elements of a crime are a guilty act (what you did that broke the law), a guilty mind (your intent to break the law), concurrence (the guilty act occurred while you had a guilty mind), and causation (the link between the guilty act and the consequence for which you are being charged; this is not necessary to prove in the case of inchoate offenses like attempted murder).

Third, in a judicial system, “guilty” and “not guilty” don’t always mean the same things as they would outside of that system. Legal guilt is not the same thing as moral guilt or even just plain old causal responsibility, and mixing them up will only confuse you. Keeping them separate is why juries find people “not guilty” rather than “innocent.” It is not within their power to declare absolute truths about what happened. They are only there to decide whether the prosecution has met its burden of proof.

Patty_Melt's avatar

Not all crimes are turned to jury for trial.
Judges do indeed often decide guilt.

zenvelo's avatar

You would certainly not be innocent. A Not Guilty verdict just means not proved to the point of being convicted.

(By the way, your supposition about doing it “for the money, not malicious intent”, doesn’t exonerate behavior. It may mitigate, but it doesn’t exonerate.).

LostInParadise's avatar

I see your point, @Yellowdog . All these pinko commies letting people off on technicalities when we know they are guilty as all get out. I say we should have the execution first and then have the trial. With me on this?

si3tech's avatar

Guilty. Not held accountable. I do not think intent alters the fact.

Yellowdog's avatar

I’m not referring to ‘technicalities’ —I’m referring to when a judge, or assistant attorney general to the F.B.I. pronounces a ‘not guilty’ verdict because of ‘intent’ (which is NOT the call of the assistant attorney general nor is ‘intent’ a factor in determining guilt—just someone pronounces them not guilty and everyone legally accepts it—

LostInParadise's avatar

There are three broad categories of assigning guilt: intent, negligence, and act of God. An example of the last category would be if there is a sudden ice storm and someone slips and breaks their leg on your property before you could be expected to clear it.

Someone can be convicted due to negligence even if there was no intent. If there was no intent and no negligence, what grounds are there for guilt? Do you have a specific example to clarify what you mean?

stanleybmanly's avatar

While a judge might pronounce a defendant ‘not guilty’, the attorney general does not. The A G is responsible for gathering evidence and prosecuting the suspect. More to the point, the A G must decide whether or not the evidence is sufficient for the likelihood of a successful prosecution, and has the fiduciary responsibilty of not squandering resources on cases where the chance of conviction is dubious.

SergeantQueen's avatar

Not legally, but morally

Jeruba's avatar

Definitions are the key. We can discuss definitions of “guilty,” but I think what we need here is a definition of “crime.”

If we regard it as “breaking the law,” then by definition if you commit a crime you are guilty of breaking the law. Merriam-Webster: “an illegal act for which someone can be punished by the government.”

Once you’ve been found guilty of the offense, the court can determine (often within predefined limits) whether you will pay a penalty and how much. If the court lets you off with little or no penalty, that doesn’t change the fact that you were found guilty. Motive and intent might be factors in that decision.

If you define it as committing a harmful or immoral act, then if you did it, you’re culpable, regardless of whether you’re ever punished for it and even if no one ever finds out.

It’s not against the law to tell a lie (except under certain circumstances), but it is still bearing false witness, which is against moral law.

But the court’s job is to deal with questions of law, not questions of morality or justice. If you did something wrong, however you define “wrong,” then no court decision can change that fact. So if that’s what it means to be guilty, yes, you’re guilty, no matter what sentence you do or don’t receive in a court of law.

flutherother's avatar

In Scotland we have three verdicts “guilty” “not guilty” and “not proven”.

Yellowdog's avatar

Those actually sound like good categories.

I am trying to find the ‘vibe’ for how people classify ‘crimes’ when they ‘know’ a person is guilty yet they go with the ‘non-guilty’ verdict.

Take O.J. Simpson, for example. There are a lot of people who think he did it, that he’s guilty. But they bullishly defend a non-guilty verdict—he’s ‘not guilty’ because a jury said so, Therefore, he did nothing wrong.

I know a lot of religious people (don’t want to pick on anyone here) who cannot defend their holy book (e.g. the book of Mormon, in light of evidence of the North American continent’s history and archaeology) or the Roman Catholic belief in Transubstatuation (the wine and wafer turning into the real, actual blood and body of Christ) — they ‘know’ it isn’t true, but confess to believing it anyway, because the doctrine, the law, the code said so,

LadyMarissa's avatar

In my opinion, not being “found” guilty does NOT negate the fact that in reality that you ARE guilty. Getting over on the law does NOT excuse bad behavior!!!

stanleybmanly's avatar

@Yellowdog But you have stated the flaw that covers all of them. They’re ALL about faith, which amounts to believing in things you can neither see nor prove. What’s worse is that that they’re all footed on explanations of reality which defy not only common sense, but proven scientific facts.

Yellowdog's avatar

Stanleybemanly: Somehow you are trying to turn this into a religious discussion. What is the reason?

My references to the book of Mormon, and the Roman Catholic belief in Transubstantiation is that they make claims about the tangible and concrete, which are not true.

In reference to the Book of Mormon, they claim that vast cities of Jews and Babylonians existed in the Americas. No archaeology has born this out. And Transubstantiation holds the belief that bread and wine become literal blood and flesh when consumed in the Roman Catholic Mass.

“Believers” in these topics state they don’t really believe them or know them to be untrue, because of glaring evidence—but accept them somehow on faith. In all fairness, they have come to spiritualize them by making them true ‘in essence but not in substance’. But this means not in the tangible or concrete.

This compares with the law, when people “know” someone did the crime, but says they are ‘not guilty’ and ‘did nothing wrong’ because a judge overlooked it or cleared it.

CWOTUS's avatar

Your original question and some of your succeeding commentary has gone all over the map on this topic, so I wonder how well informed you are on some of these issues. I’ll start with the OP and then take a stab at some of the following discussion – and I hope to avoid religion entirely.

In the first place, I can’t think of a judge in this country, no matter how misguided his perception of a criminal’s act and no matter how sympathetic that person may appear in his courtroom, to arrive at a finding that “Yes, a crime of criminal conversion [essentially, the creation and use of a fraudulent identity which enables the person to ‘convert’ my property to his possession] has been committed, but it was just for the money, so it’s okay.

That would never happen. On the other hand, given the specifics of the crime that the person may be convicted of (if we assume that in advance), and the relatively minor values involved, or even the purposes for which the money was stolen, then the judge may give a relatively light sentence, down to “time served” while in jail awaiting the trial. Judges don’t say “You’re guilty, but I don’t think it much matters” ... and still retain their positions, that is.

On the other hand, it can easily and often happen that a bad prosecutor can botch the case, or attempt to use illegally obtained evidence in an attempt to convict – and have no other evidence available – or the jury themselves could decide upon a finding of ‘not guilty’ because they simply weren’t convinced, or a good defense attorney can introduce that doubt by calling witnesses, police procedure and the victim’s own testimony into question. The guilty verdict in a criminal case requires a jury finding of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”, so if there is reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind (such as doubt about who committed the crime, or whether a crime was, in fact, committed, for example), then the jury is instructed to find the defendant not guilty.

They may still have a suspicion that he did it, but they cannot convict on “suspicion”; that’s the purpose of the trial, after all: to allay that “suspicious doubt” and turn it into a level of certainty that a crime was committed, the crime is thus-and-such (because the details of the crime are part of the case, after all), and that person committed the crime – beyond any reasonable doubt. (That all happens within the context of the rules of evidence, legal constraints on the lawyers involved and general courtroom procedure, so like any other human system things can go awry and guilty people walk while the innocent go to jail. But the rules are supposed to help prevent that.)

Judges don’t often make the decision of guilt vs. non-guilt, except in a bench trial, where the defendant waives his Constitutional right to a trial by jury. In that case, the judge makes a ruling after hearing the evidence and the case from both sides.

There are exceptions to that general rule, though: a judge may, in particular circumstances, overrule the jury and make a “directed verdict” for guilt or acquittal, when it is obvious that the jury has in some way erred quite egregiously for or against the defendant. That is necessarily rare, because if it were frequent, then there would be no call or use (or reliance) upon trial by jury. In those cases the judge clearly states that he is overruling the jury – usually including a strong admonition against their own bad practice or bad faith in arriving at their announced decision – and states just as clearly why he believes his own decision to be the correct one.

On the other hand, and this was evident from reading some of your own responses in the thread, the prosecutor may elect not to bring charges in the first place. Many cases never make it to a judge. You seem to be referring rather broadly to the Hillary Clinton email scandal of recent vintage, where the Department of Justice (via the FBI) had loads of evidence that misdeeds were done, but the Director of the FBI publicly announced that he would not recommend prosecution. (There were various political reasons for that, as you well know, and not least of those was that the FBI did not want to directly tip the election for or against Mrs. Clinton. It seems pretty obvious that that happened anyway, and part of the reason for that was that all of that announcement was delayed until after the DNC convention. Had that announcement be made before the convention, then there could very well have been a different nominee and outcome. And that was probably ‘directed’, too, but we may never know for sure.)

But prosecutors do have discretion, after all, whether to pursue a case or not. (And in the case of the FBI Director, it was not up to him to decide whether or not to prosecute. His words were carefully chosen to give the Attorney General political cover and a reason to go along with Comey’s recommendation.)

Finally, a lot of cases are plea-bargained before a full trial is held. In these cases the prosecutor may over-charge (realizing that the defense team will make a counter-offer for lower charges or sentencing), and the two sides will come to an agreement about what crime was committed – which may be considerably less than what was “actually done” – and for which the defendant agrees to plead guilty and accept the sentence for the lesser crime that is stipulated to.

Judges can also declare mistrials, when one side or the other makes improper statements in front of the jury, or introduces evidence which is clearly prejudicial – and prosecutors may or may not reopen the case. Or a Perry Mason style ending may occur where a completely new person is indicated to have committed the crime (or some other evidence completely and obviously shows that the defendant could not possibly have committed the crime charged), and the case may be rightly dismissed by the judge “with prejudice” – meaning, “This case is sunk, and the charges for this crime may not be redrawn against this defendant.” (Alternatively, if the prosecutor’s case falls apart for some reason, but there’s still a good deal of evidence pointing to guilt, then the judge may dismiss the case “without prejudice”, in which case the prosecutor is still able to rebuild the case, seek new witnesses and re-charge the defendant.)

To specifically respond to one of your comments: The FBI Director does not, cannot and would not (and did not) say that a potential or likely suspect, person of interest or defendant in a criminal case is “not guilty” of a purported crime. He wouldn’t last a day if he did. (On the other hand, we all start the trial with the presumption in favor of the defendant, that he or she is “not guilty until proven so”.) But FBI Directors do not arrive at verdicts.

Yellowdog's avatar

James Comey was an F.B.I director. He arrived at a verdict.

Thanks for such a long and detailed explanation. A LOT of good information here

stanleybmanly's avatar

Comey arrived at a CONCLUSION, namely that the evidence would not bear out a successful prosecution in Clinton’s case.

stanleybmanly's avatar

Then again, Comey and it would appear that most senior officials in the DOJ and intelligence services have made alarming declarations regarding the fitness of Trump for high office.

SimpatichnayaZhopa's avatar

A crime is still a crime, even if there is a miscarriage of justice.

CWOTUS's avatar

I give up.

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