pass the california bar exam, conquer the california bar exam jd advisingHow to Conquer Criminal Law on the California Bar Exam

Here, we tell you how to conquer Criminal Law on the California Bar Exam. Criminal Law is regularly tested on the California Bar Exam (about once every other year).

Criminal Law is somewhat predictable in terms of how it is tested. Further, the California State Bar tends not to test California distinctions on Criminal Law questions, which makes studying for Criminal Law a little easier than some of the other California Bar Exam subjects.

Below, we tell you how to conquer Criminal Law on the California Bar Exam. 

Criminal Law on the California Bar Exam

1. First, know how Criminal Law is tested. 

A few notes on Criminal Law on the California Bar Exam:

  • California has virtually always tested “general” law (rather than California law) on essay questions, as noted above.
  • Sometimes Criminal Law is tested. Other times, Criminal Procedure is tested. And often, they are combined together. (We call them both “Criminal Law” in this post.)
  • Criminal Law has not been tested with another subject since 2008. Before 2008, it was tested with Constitutional Law a few times as well as Evidence.

2. Be aware of the highly tested issues. 

Just as with any subject, the State Bar of California does not reinvent the wheel every time it writes a Criminal Law question. Rather, there are certain issues that appear repeatedly in Criminal Law questions on the California Bar Exam (We have a nice summary of these in our California Bar Exam One-Sheets.)

Some “favorite” Criminal Law issues on the California Bar Exam include the following:

  • Murder and manslaughter: Make sure you know the distinctions between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, felony murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Not only are these issues popular on California Bar Exam essays but they also will make up about four MBE questions.
    • First-degree murder requires both premeditation and deliberation
    • Second-degree murder: There are three mindsets a defendant may have to be liable for second-degree murder:
      • Intent to cause grievous bodily harm and the victim ends up dying.
      • Extreme recklessness regarding homicidal risk and someone dies (“depraved heart”).
      • Intent to kill, but without premeditation and deliberation and the victim dies.
    • Voluntary manslaughter: the intentional killing of a human being without malice aforethought committed in the heat of passion due to adequate provocation.
    • Involuntary manslaughter: (1) the killing of another human being due to recklessness or gross negligence, or (2) a killing during the commission of a misdemeanor or a felony that does not qualify for felony murder.
  • Theft crimes (larceny, robbery, burglary, and receiving stolen goods)
  • Inchoate crimes of attempt (occasionally tested with kidnapping), conspiracy, and solicitation. Attempt is the most highly tested and requires that the defendant has the specific intent to commit the crime and gets dangerously close to completing it.
  • The Fourth Amendment: this is an expansive topic that is heavily tested on California Bar Exam essay questions!
  • Fifth Amendment Miranda rights: this is the second most highly tested Criminal Procedure topic.

Above are some of the most popular Criminal Law issues that appear in California Bar Exam essays.

3. Make sure you have the rules and important legal terms memorized!

Memorize the rules!

Criminal Law is very rules-based. Oftentimes, if you memorize the elements of the law, applying them is pretty straightforward. (This will help you double—on the essay portion and MBE portion!)

You should make sure that you have committed the highly tested crimes (listed above) to memory. You should also memorize the Fourth Amendment as well as the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, and what Miranda entails. Please read these tips on how to memorize your bar exam outlines if you are not sure where to begin.

Criminal Law and Procedure is very case-based. So, you will be expected to know some terminology from cases and even references to case names (“Miranda,” “Terry,” etc.). By using the proper legal vocabulary, the grader will see that you know what you are talking about!

Some important legal terms

Below we list a few legal terms to be aware of for Criminal Procedure. This is not an expansive list. Rather, we hope it inspires you to make your own list of important legal terms, especially if you did not take Criminal Procedure in law school.

  • Miranda attaches upon a custodial interrogation.
  • To invoke the right to remain silent, the invocation must be explicit, unambiguous, and unequivocal.
  • The Fourth Amendment attaches when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause.
  • For a Terry stop, the officer needs reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.
  • For a Terry frisk, the officer needs a reasonable belief that the suspect is armed and dangerous.

Consider flashcards for Criminal Law.

We normally do not advocate the use of flashcards, but flashcards can be especially helpful for memorizing the elements of crimes. (For something like the Fourth Amendment, a mind map or visual tool may be better since it is a broad topic and may be hard to sensibly break up into notecards!)

4. Practice! 

This is always our final tip because it is so important! The best way to get good at Criminal Law essay questions is to practice essays. This will help you become acquainted with how Criminal Law is tested (including how it sometimes appears with other subjects, like Constitutional Law). And, it will help you master the highly tested issues.

Here are a few essay questions with student answers that we recommend you practice to get exposed to some highly tested topics in Criminal Law essay questions:

Good luck studying for the California Bar Exam!

Go to the next topic, Chapter 11: Evidence.

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