Criminal Law Glossary

Authored by Wendy Witt, Esq.

If you or a loved one has been arrested or is being questioned for a crime, it's likely one of the scariest times of your life. You need to understand what's going on and unless you work in a criminal law job, you may not know the criminal law jargon.

We've created this criminal law keyword glossary so you can ask good questions and understand what your criminal defense attorney tells you to do.

Criminal Law Glossary

Accessory

You can be held criminally liable for helping someone commit a crime. An accessory is guilty of a crime because he helped the perpetrator commit the crime. The help came either before or after the crime is actually committed.

For example, Ralph buys Liza a gun so she can shoot her husband or Michelle drives the getaway car after the bank robbery. In these cases, both Ralph and Michelle are accessories to crimes.

Accomplice

You can be guilty of a crime even if you didn't directly commit the crime - so long as you helped someone else commit the crime – and were present during the commission of the crime.

For example, Tyron was found guilty of homicide because he helped Brett rob the convenience store. Brett shot and killed the clerk during that robbery.

In this case, Tyron was an accomplice.

Aid and Abet

You "aid and abet" in a crime if you knowingly help someone else commit the crime. While an accomplice is present during the commission of the crime, typically, someone who is charged with aiding and abetting was not present when the crime actually took place.

For example, Timothy asks store employee, Rick, for the combination to the store safe, where security cameras are located, and when the day's money is picked up. Rick provides the information, knowing that Timothy intends to rob the store.

Rick is guilty of aiding and abetting Timothy in the robbery of the store.

Affirmative Defense

If you assert an affirmative defense, you admit that you did the action you are being accused of, but declare that you had a legal reason for taking such action – so you are not guilty.

Common affirmative defenses include insanity, self-defense, and duress.

For example:
  • Randy says, "Yes, I did it, but I have an excuse. I was insane."
  • Joe states, "I killed him because he was trying to kill me. I feared for my life."
  • Penelope says, "Tim and Nick forced me at gunpoint to rob the store."

Arraignment

If someone is arrested and charged with a crime, he or she must be brought before the judge and have the charges explained. At that time, a guilty, nolo contendere, or not guilty plea must be entered.

In other words, if you've been arrested, you have a meeting with the judge in the courtroom. You'll hear what you've been arrested for and asked whether you wish to plead guilty or not guilty. This procedure is called an "arraignment".

Your defense attorney will be with you and counsel you so you know whether it's in your best interests to plead guilty or not guilty.

Nolo contendere is also used; it means that you are choosing not to contest the facts of the case. In other words, you are not fighting the criminal charges. Nolo contendere has the same effect as a guilty plea in your criminal case, but your plea can't be used against you in any other case.

Examples of Pleas:
  • Gregory pleaded guilty to drug possession as part of a plea bargain.
  • Sandra pleaded not guilty to identity theft because she thinks the district attorney doesn't have enough evidence to convict her at trial.
  • Ralph pleaded nolo contendere to DWI because while he does not contest the facts in his case, but doesn't want to make it easy for Mary's family to sue him for wrongful death. Mary was killed when Ralph's car hit hers just before he was arrested for DWI.

Acquittal

To bottom line it, an "acquittal" means NOT guilty.

You are "acquitted" if either the judge says there's not enough evidence to convict you or the jury finds you not guilty.

Keep in mind that the prosecution, usually the district attorney, needs to prove that you committed the crime you are accused of beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • This is a very high standard and can be likened to scoring a touchdown while playing football.
  • To prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the players (e.g. the prosecution) have to get the ball all the way down the field to the goal line – anything short of that is not good enough.

Bail

If the court is concerned that you may not show up for your court dates, it hand down an order mandating that you must post either money or collateral before you are released from jail. This means that you must post bail.

  • If you are released on your own recognizance, you do not have to post bail. This is common for less serious crimes such as drunk driving.
  • The more serious the crime, the higher the bail.
  • The more likely you are to flee the jurisdiction – and not show up for court – the higher your bail.
  • While bail is usually granted, if the judge thinks you may be a danger to yourself or to others, bail can be denied. This means that you must stay in jail until you have been fully adjudicated (and found to be innocent).

Most folks don't have instant access to large sums of cash so they purchase a bail bond from a bail bond company.

Bail Bond

A bail bond company is a service that posts the full bail on your behalf so you can get out of jail and go home.

Bail bond services are separate from your criminal defense attorney's legal services. Your attorney doesn't sell you a bail bond, but he or she may tell you where to get one.

  • County and state cases require a 10% bond, whereas, federal and immigration cases require a 15% bond. This means that to buy a bail bond, you must pay a percentage of the bail amount to get out of jail.
    • Most bail bonds cost 10%, so we'll use that as an example. Note that all bail bond companies charge the same fee because the fee is set by law. No legitimate bail bond company will charge you more – or less – than any other company.
    • If the judge sets your bail at $10,000, the bail bond would cost $1,000 (10% of $10,000 is $1,000) or if the bail is set at $50,000, the bail bond would cost $5,000 (10% of $50,000 is $5,000).
    • The downside of a bail bond is that you have to pay a fee for the service – which you do NOT get back. The plus side is that you will get out of jail and get home likely much faster than if you tried to post bail yourself.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

To convict an individual of a crime, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual actually committed the crime (an act or failure to act) with the requisite mental state ("mens rea".) Not all crimes require a specific mental state.

In civil cases (non-criminal cases), the burden of proof is only a "preponderance of the evidence." This is a much easier burden to meet than "beyond a reasonable doubt."

To meet the preponderance of the evidence, the plaintiff just needs to get the jury to believe that it is more likely than not that the defendant is guilty. It's easy to liken preponderance of the evidence to the 51st yard line in a football game.

On the other hand, beyond a reasonable doubt means that the jury needs to be convinced that the accused committed the crime and that any doubts held are unreasonable. In other words, a reasonable person wouldn't have any doubts that the accused committed the crime. Reasonable doubt can be likened to the goal line in a football game.

Booking

Booking is simply the process of recording the identifying information of someone who has been arrested. You've likely seen mug shots on television; photographing someone, who has been arrested, is part of the booking process.

For example, Eli was arrested and taken to the police station to be booked – meaning that he was photographed and fingerprinted and other identifying information is recorded.

Capital Case

Some states still have the death penalty, meaning that if the accused is found guilty, one of the potential penalties is death. These cases are said to be "capital" cases and first-degree (premeditated) murder is the best example.

Concurrent Sentences

If you receive "concurrent" sentences, the sentences run at the same time.

For example, Keith is found guilty and receives 3 concurrent sentences of 3 years, 4, years, and 5 years. The most time Keith will spend in jail is 5 years because all the concurrent sentences run at the same time.

Conversely, if Keith received consecutive sentences, he would be spending 12 years in jail. (3 + 4 + 5 = 12years) Consecutive sentences are added together.

Consecutive Sentences

If you receive "consecutive" sentences, the penalties are added one to the other.

For example, if Stanley is found guilty and receives three 7-year sentences, he will spend 21 years in jail. (7 + 7 + 7 = 21) Add the sentences together.

If the sentences had been concurrent, they would run at the same time and Stanley would spend a total of 7 years in jail.

Count

Each allegation of a committing a crime is called a "count". Either an "information" or an "indictment" is used to charge someone with a crime.

For example, Jerry was charged with 15 counts of rape because he is accused of committing rape 15 times.

  • An "information" is a written formal charging document presented by the prosecutor (not the grand jury). It is used is less serious (e.g. misdemeanor cases).
  • Whereas, an "indictment" is a written formal charging document by the grand jury (not the prosecutor). In a serious case like Jerry's, the grand jury will hand down an indictment.

Double Jeopardy

No person can be brought to trial for the same criminal action more than once and cannot be punished for the same crime more than once. The right against double jeopardy is guaranteed by the 5th Amendment for federal cases and by both the 14th Amendment and 5th Amendment for state cases.

For example, Oscar was found not guilty of identity theft. Double jeopardy bars the prosecution from charging Oscar with identity theft again for the same incident.

However, if Oscar is thought to commit identity theft in the future, he can be charged with a crime for that particular incident.

Felony

Crimes are divided into 3 main categories: summary offenses, misdemeanors and felonies.

  • Felonies are the most serious crimes and are punishable by more than one year in jail.
  • In each state, felonies are divided into levels of seriousness; there are felonies under federal law as well.
  • Examples of felony crimes are kidnapping, murder, arson, robbery, burglary, assault, and rape.

Grand Jury

The "grand jury" is group of citizens that hears evidence against the accused to determine only whether the prosecution has enough evidence (i.e. "probable cause") to bring the defendant to trial.

No innocence or guilt is determined. The only decision is whether – or not – the defendant should be prosecuted.

For example, the grand jury found that there was not enough evidence to hold Juan over for trial, so he was released and charges were dropped. No indictment was issued.

Or, for example, the grand jury indicated Franklin on 3 counts of arson. His trial will be next June.

Guilty Plea and Nolo Contendere

When you are accused of a crime, you have a choice on how you wish to respond to your arrest.

  • You can plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere.
  • You will make you plea either verbally or in writing at your arraignment.

A plea of "nolo contendere" means that you don't wish to contest the criminal charges.

  • Your punishment will be the same as if you pleaded guilty.
  • However, a guilty plea can be used against you in another case such as a civil trial arising from the same incident.
  • If you plead nolo contendere, that pleading cannot be used against you in another case and the plaintiff's attorney would have to prove your guilt in any subsequent case.

The prosecutor may offer a plea bargain, meaning that you will be convicted to a lesser crime in exchange for your guilty plea.

Your criminal defense attorney will help you to determine how you should plead – as well as other important strategies in your case.

Hate Crime – Bias Crime

If a crime is committed because the defendant was acting on his bias (aka "hate) against the victim's sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity/national origin, or disability, the action is a "hate crime" or "bias crime" and the penalties are much stiffer than if the crime was committed for another reason.

For example, Bob, John, and Tim, attacked Michael because he was gay. That is a hate crime.

On the other hand, if Bob, John, and Tim got in a fight with Michael at a bar because of an argument over a football game, this would not be a hate crime.

Misdemeanor

Crimes are divided into 3 main categories: summary offenses, misdemeanors and felonies.

  • Summary offenses are not punishable by jail time and usually involve paying a fine such as parking violations and speeding.
  • Misdemeanors are more serious than summary offenses and less serious than felonies - they are punishable by one year or less of jail time. Often, there is no jail time. Examples of a misdemeanor would be disorderly conduct, petty theft, and public drunkenness.
  • On the other hand, felonies are the most serious and are punishable by more than one year in jail. Examples are rape, murder, arson, and child abuse.

Indictment and Information

An "information" is a written formal document, charging the defendant with a crime. The prosecutor (not the grand jury) submits the information.

On the other hand, an "indictment" is a written formal document, charging the defendant with a crime. The grand jury (not the prosecutor) hands down an indictment.

Both the indictment and the information bring a defendant to trial. Indictments are usually used for the more serious cases (felonies) and the information tends to be used for less serious cases (misdemeanors).

Your criminal defense lawyer will explain all case procedures to you, including the indictment or information, so you know what to expect and he or she will be by your side through the entire case.

Immunity

The prosecutor may grant immunity to someone in exchange for information in a criminal case.

For example, Rochelle turned state's evidence and testified against drug king pin, Ken. Rochelle was granted immunity for her cooperation and she was not prosecuted for her role in the drug deals.

You may also have heard the term, "diplomatic immunity", which is used to protect official foreign national visitors from any prosecution.

Impeachment

If a trial witness says something on the witness stand that she did not say elsewhere – or if there is another reason that the witness statements may not be true, the opposing counsel will likely seek to impeach that witness – show that she is not credible.

For example, Tanya first said that Mark pulled the trigger; on the stand, Tanya said that Leroy pulled the trigger.

"Impeach" can also be used to describe action to get an elected official out of office. For example, President Nixon was impeached for his role in Watergate; he then resigned as President of the United States.

Initial Appearance

If you have been arrested, you will be brought before the judge within a few hours of your arrest. At that time, the judge determines whether there is probable cause to charge you with a crime.

  • The initial appearance and other court procedures have been established to protect the accused.
  • Remember the television show, Night Court? The cases that went before the judge were at the initial appearance stage.

Nolo Contendere and the Guilty Plea

When you are accused of a crime, you have the choice between pleading guilty or not guilty. You also can plead "nolo contendere", meaning that you don't wish to contest the criminal charges.

The distinction between a plea of nolo contendere and a guilty plea is that a guilty plea be used against you in another case – and a plea of nolo contendere cannot. However, the criminal penalties are the same for either pleading.

  • For example, when accused of drunk driving, Gary chose to plead nolo contendere. He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to 9 months in jail.
  • If Gary was sued in a civil court (a non-criminal case) for causing a car accident and injuring someone during that same incident, the plaintiff's attorney would have to prove that Gary was guilty of drunk driving, he had no guilty verdict to use.

Ask your criminal defense lawyer whether pleading not guilty, guilty, or nolo contendere is in your best interests.

Own Recognizance

When an arrested person is released without bail, he is "released on his own recognizance". No bail is required and the arrestee promises he will appear at court as ordered.

For example, Phil was arrested for urinating in public. The court determined that no bail was necessary so he was released on his own recognizance.

Plea Bargain

Often the prosecutor (e.g. district attorney) will negotiate with you and/or your criminal defense lawyer. In exchange for your guilty plea, the prosecutor will lessen the crime you're charged with.

One of the benefits of working with a criminal defense lawyer is that he or she understands how to negotiate (aka "plea bargain") and whether plea bargaining is in your best interests or not.

Note: If you accept a plea bargain – you waive your right to a jury trial.

Probation

Probation is a criminal penalty; it's a supervised alternative to actual jail time and if certain rules and conditions are followed during probation, jail can be avoided.

For example, Jake received probation for his drug possession conviction. He has to report to his probation officer on a regular basis, get drug counseling, and keep his job to avoid jail time.

Public Defender

A public defender is a government paid attorney, who defends those who cannot afford to pay their own criminal defense attorney.

For example, Melanie, a homeless mother, was accused of shoplifting; she doesn't have the money to pay for her own criminal defense lawyer, so the public defender will take her case.

Public defenders are criminal defense attorneys paid for by the government – not the individual defendant.

Sentencing Guidelines

Many states have sentencing guidelines, which provide the outermost limits on criminal sentences.

For example, in California, a crime may be punishable with 6 months to 2 years of jail time. The judge can hand down a sentence anywhere within the sentencing guidelines of 6 months to 2 years.

  • Minimizing factors tend to push the sentence toward the lower end of the guidelines and aggravating factors tend to push the sentence toward the higher end of the guidelines.
  • For example, in a drunk driving case, minimizing factors may be driving within the speed limit, no children in the vehicle, no property damage, and a first offense.
  • On the other hand, aggravating factors would be excessive speeding, minors in the vehicle, property damage, bodily injury and/or death, and prior offenses.

Summary Offenses

There are 3 general levels of crimes; summary offenses are the least serious crimes; they are punishable by fines, but not jail time. Misdemeanors are more serious than summary offenses and felonies are the most serious of all.

Because the penalties are not serious, summary offenses don't bear the right to a jury trial or indictment (a grand jury determination of probable cause).

Examples of summary offenses would be underage drinking, public drunkenness, shoplifting, and speeding tickets.

Suspended Sentence

If you receive a suspended sentence, the sentence is handed down but you don't have to serve it right there and then – and, perhaps, never.

For example, Lois was convicted of marijuana possession. She was sentenced to 2 years in jail, but the judge suspended her sentence and gave her 2 years probation.

If at the end of the 2 years probation, Lois has followed all the rules and not violated her probation, the judge will likely drop the 2 year jail sentence altogether.

Taking the Fifth

You may have heard people say, "I'm taking the fifth" jokingly in everyday conversation when they don't want to explain something that will make them look bad.

"Taking the fifth" refers to your Constitutional right against self-incrimination. You cannot be forced to testify against yourself if you think that such testimony is against your best interests.

This is why you don't have to take the witness stand if you are being accused of a crime; however, if you do choose to take the stand – the prosecuting attorney gets to ask you questions and you have to answer.

Your right against self-incrimination is guaranteed by the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – and made applicable to state cases by way of the 14th Amendment.

Warrant

A warrant is a court-issued written document that authorizes the police to make an arrest or search the premises.

Officers must present probable cause in a written affidavit (sworn statement) to the judge in order to get a warrant issued.

A bail bond service or a criminal defense lawyer can find out whether there is a warrant out for your arrest. Either can help you turn yourself in so that you avoid a street confrontation with police.

For example, the Dani and Fred told the cops that David was growing marijuana in his basement. Based on their statement, the police asked the judge for a search warrant to investigate David's basement.

How to Find and Select a Criminal Defense Attorney

There are three main ways to find a criminal defense lawyer:
  1. Personal Referral
  2. Bar Association List
  3. Internet (www.attorneys.org)

Personal Referral

A good way to find a criminal defense lawyer is to get a personal referral from a friend or family member. If your loved one had a good experience, you likely will as well.

The downside if asking for a referral is twofold:
  1. Lack of Privacy
  2. The Limitation of Geographic Location

If you don't want everyone to know you've been arrested, then a personal referral may not be the way to go. A bar association and the attorney referral website would be private, whereas, a personal referral is not.

In addition, geography limits which lawyer who will agree to represent you.

  • First of all, lawyers are licensed state by state. Only an attorney licensed in your state can represent you.
  • Second, because of required court appearances, attorneys, in general, limit their geographic area of practice.

Bar Association List

You can get a list of criminal defense attorneys from your bar association. Look online or call the office. You'll need to conduct an Internet search to find a bar association for your county.

There would be no obligation or fee for a bar association list.

Internet Referral

Fortunately, you can use www.attorneys.org for immediate results 24/7/365. In fact, you can find a criminal defense attorney in your area any time of the day or night – holidays and weekends included – and the site is free, fast, and without any obligation.

You are welcome to contact a few attorneys to determine which one is the best fit your for your individual situation.

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