Penal law is a term used to describe the enforcement of laws created by the government, the prosecution of those who violate such laws, and the assignment and execution of penalties relating to offenses. It includes laws and offenses at every governmental level and violations of every type. It is often referred to as “criminal law.”
The counterpart to penal law is civil law, which involves private parties rather than governmental agencies. Some actions may subject an individual to prosecution under both areas of law. For example, a doctor who makes a fatal error during surgery will likely be sued for malpractice in civil court. If the doctor made the mistake because he was impaired, he might also be charged with negligent homicide in a criminal, or penal, court.
Many attorneys specialize in penal law. This includes trial lawyers, who are responsible for either prosecuting or defending the case. In most cases, prosecuting attorneys are employees of the government hearing the case. Defense attorneys, on the other hand, are usually employed by private firms.
Some areas of penal law set forth the rules regarding how a possible violation may be investigated. A common example would be a law requiring police officers to read a suspect his rights and, in some areas, to advise a suspect that he is not required to talk without a solicitor. Other laws might apply to questioning minors, obtaining warrants and subpoenas, right-to-privacy laws, and patient-doctor privilege laws.
The treatment of a suspect once charges have been brought also fall under penal law. These might include the right of the accused to a trial by jury or the right of some suspects to be released without bail. Other such laws apply to courtroom proceedings, such as the situations under which a judge or prosecutor must recuse himself from duty.
Penal law also provides restrictions in terms of punishments. It dictates the minimum and maximum allowable jail terms, fines, and other penalties that the court may impose on a convicted suspect. It also dictates whether a crime is considered a major or minor offense — a felony or misdemeanor, respectively — and whether or not parole is an option. In some jurisdictions, penal law also provides parameters for alternate incarceration facilities, such as mental hospitals.
The word “penal” literally means “pertaining to punishment.” It is derived from similar words in old French, Latin, and Greek. In some areas, the laws pertaining to criminal activities, prosecution, and sentencing are called the “penal code.”