The word ‘criminal’ gets used a whole heck of a lot. In its strictest and most correct terms in these modern days, a criminal is someone who has both violated the criminal code in their jurisdiction, and been duly convicted.
Just violating the criminal code (which is termed committing a crime or a criminal act) isn’t actually enough. Until such time as a proper conviction is obtained, the state continues to refer to the person as a ‘defendant’ and not as a criminal. They only become a ‘criminal’ once convicted. In most countries, once a criminal has served their time and/or paid any fines, they lose their criminal status.
They’re once again considered to be law-abiding, clean and upright citizens, and their prior crimes are not factored against them in any subsequent trial (though they are considered for bail and for sentencing). An exception to this general rule are sex-offenders, who are permanently marked.
Nevertheless, you tend to hear the words ‘criminal’ and ‘criminal act’ all too often bandied about, about people who are not criminals, and about acts which are not really criminal acts.
It’s a very emotive way of speaking about someone or something, when the speaker wishes to suggest that someone is actually a criminal, or an act is criminal, even if they aren’t and it isn’t. The purpose of speaking that way is often to manipulate the listener – although sometimes it is simply done out of ignorance. Either way, the usage intentionally carries an accompanying social stigma.
My general advice would be to watch your tongue. Describing someone as a criminal when they’re not, or describing their actions as criminal when they’re not is simple defamation, as most lawyers and anyone willing to profit from a defamation lawsuit knows. It’s a time to chose your words with care. There’s another reason you should do that too, which I’ll talk about down near the bottom.
There’s also the matter of jurisdiction. Criminal law differs from place-to-place, and it can differ significantly. What is a crime where you are – and this can be especially true online – may not be a crime where someone else is.
Drinking alcohol, for example, is a crime in a number of countries – yet you’re violating no law by consuming it in a country where it is legal – assuming you meet whatever local restrictions there may be, such as being of-age.
Where and when I was born, and for a number of years thereafter, two or more Chinese women in the same residence simultaneously was a crime, and could earn them (and others present at the time) steep fines and jail time.
In some countries you cannot commit criminal copyright infringement, because the offense simply isn’t a part of that country’s criminal code (heck, some few countries don’t even have copyright laws at all).
See the image at the top of this piece? In a couple of countries it would be a crime for me to include that – but it isn’t where I am, and it doesn’t mean I’ve broken the law if it is a violation of the criminal code where you are, or where the server is (though, yes, the server itself could be acted against – totally different issue).
Nevertheless, crime does happen, and it happens both online and offline (just as it can happen via the post, or the telephone or fax), and when you think a crime has been committed, you should do something about it.
The first (and probably most difficult) thing you should do is to think.
Are you reasonably sure that an actual violation of the criminal code is or has been committed?
Offline, that’s pretty easy to do. Someone getting beaten up, screams, strangers taking CDs and electronics out of your neighbour’s house, gunshots and so forth are all strong indicators.
Online, it is rather harder, especially as you don’t necessarily know where the other person might be located, or exactly what laws they’re subject to as a result.
If you’re reasonably sure, your next step is to contact the police, and file a report with them. The police’s primary role is to investigate and (if necessary and possible) prosecute crime. That’s what they’re for. They may even be able to get action taken in other countries, depending on the status of various treaties and legal arrangements.
What you should not do is sit down and blog about it, or make the details public. While it might be satisfying, and you might feel a duty to caution others, publishing information about a potential criminal/crime can, in some circumstances, make it harder or impossible to obtain a conviction, and may disrupt or completely compromise a police investigation.
In short, you may wind up rescuing a potential criminal from proper prosecution and penalties, and that’s no good to anyone.
So, when it comes to crime, and criminals (or possible criminals) it’s worth watching your words, and actually thinking a little, even if that doesn’t necessarily seem instinctively right.