The criminal justice system in Costa Rica is made up of the body of laws which dictates what types of acts or offenses constitute a crime and the procedural system used by the government to charge and prosecute those offenses.

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The two most important sources of information for criminal law in Costa Rica are the Penal Code (Código Penal) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Código Procesal Penal). The first, codifies the bulk of all the acts or omissions established by law that constitute a criminal offense and the second sets forth the procedures for charging and prosecuting a crime through the criminal court system.

In addition to the procedural aspect, this section will also discuss the criminal offenses as set forth in the Penal Code as well as the major offenses which are not contained in the Penal Code but constitute criminal offenses of laws passed by the legislature subsequent to the adoption of the Penal Code.

1. The Penal Code:

In Costa Rica, what constitutes a crime is anything that the legislature has defined as such. The bulk of offenses which are defined as crimes is codified in the Costa Rican Penal Code (Código Penal, Law 4573 of May 4, 1970). Other laws passed by the legislature may contain criminal penalties attached to them and although they are not codified in the Penal Code they constitute criminal offenses.

The Penal Code divides offenses according to the gravity of the offense. A crime is either a felony (delito) punishable by imprisonment or a misdemeanor (contravencion) punishable by a monetary fine.

1.1 Criminal Offenses:

The Penal Code breaks down the criminal offenses into the following sixteen categories:

  1. Offenses Against Human Life
  2. Offenses Against Honor
  3. Sex Offenses
  4. Offenses Against the Family
  5. Offenses Against Liberty
  6. Offenses Against Privacy
  7. Offenses Against Property
  8. Financial Crimes
  9. Offenses Against Public Security
  10. Offenses Against Public Order
  11. Offenses Against National Security
  12. Offenses Against Political Power and Constitutional Order
  13. Offenses Against Public Officials
  14. Offenses Against the Administration of Justice
  15. Offenses Against Public Faith
  16. Offenses Against Human Rights

(Attorney Petersen’s ‘The Legal Guide To Costa Rica’ book describes each offense in depth.)

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1.2 Misdemeanor Criminal Offenses:

Book III of the Penal Code, sets forth all misdemeanor type offenses which do not result in a prison sentence but result in monetary fines. For many years Costa Rica has had a very lax view at enforcement of misdemeanor offenses. The main reason for this is that the Constitution prohibits any individual from being imprisoned for monetary obligations. Since a misdemeanor offense only imposes a monetary obligation, non payment of that monetary obligation according to the Constitutional Court could not result in imprisonment.

To overcome this hurdle the Penal Code provision was modified in 2002 to allow the judges to sentence an individual who has not paid the monetary fine to prison, if they have the ability to pay the fine, or to do community service work to discount the sentence if they cannot pay the fine imposed.

1.3 Juvenile Criminal Offenses:

When a crime is committed by a juvenile the procedure that is followed to adjudicate the guilt or innocence depends on the age of the offender. If the child is under the age of twelve then jurisdiction over the child lies with the Child Welfare Agency (Patronato Nacional de La Infancia). If the offender is between the ages of twelve and seventeen he falls under the jurisdiction and application of the Juvenile Criminal Justice Law (Ley de Justicia Penal Juvenil). The age of majority in Costa Rica is eighteen.

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Written by Attorney at Law – Roger A. Petersen. Roger has been an attorney since 1992 and is a member of both the Costa Rican and Florida Bar. He practices law in San José, Costa Rica and is the author of the best-selling book ‘The Legal Guide To Costa Rica.’

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