Helping You Understand Criminal Law Terminology and Classifications
Your criminal defense lawyer will be required to use standard legal terminology often called “legalese,” which is defined as “the formal and technical language of legal documents” that is often hard to understand. The reason for this type of legal English is for consistency in the processes of the law. We want to ensure that our clients are as familiar as possible with the terminology they will hear throughout their case, as well as see in the written documents they will be required to read. Here are some commonly used terms specific to criminal law, along with classifications that will likely be a part of the case process.
As defined in the Glossary of Legal Terms of the United States Courts, here is a selection of common terminology you may hear and see when involved in a criminal case. Reference: uscourts.gov/glossary
Conduct deemed to be wrongful and is prohibited by law.
A crime can be punishable by incarceration.
A jury verdict that a criminal defendant is not guilty, or the finding of a judge that the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction.
A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases.
A request made after a trial by a party that has lost on one or more issues that a higher court review the decision to determine if it was correct. To make such a request is “to appeal” or “to take an appeal.” One who appeals is called the “appellant”; the other party is the “appellee.”
A proceeding in which a criminal defendant is brought into court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.
The release, prior to trial, of a person accused of a crime, under specified conditions designed to assure that person’s appearance in court when required. Also can refer to the amount of bond money posted as a financial condition of pretrial release.
A bench trial is a trial without a jury, in which the judge serves as the fact-finder.
A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.
Legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a case.
A crime punishable by death.
A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.
Cause of action
A legal claim.
A lawsuit in which one or more members of a large group, or class, of individuals or other entities sue on behalf of the entire class. The district court must find that the claims of the class members contain questions of law or fact in common before the lawsuit can proceed as a class action.
Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).
In a civil case, the person or organization against whom the plaintiff brings suit; in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.
An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial. See discovery.
Procedures used to obtain disclosure of evidence before trial.
A release of a debtor from personal liability for certain dischargeable debts. Notable exceptions to dischargeability are taxes and student loans. A discharge releases a debtor from personal liability for certain debts known as dischargeable debts and prevents the creditors owed those debts from taking any action against the debtor or the debtor’s property to collect the debts. The discharge also prohibits creditors from communicating with the debtor regarding the debt, including through telephone calls, letters, and personal contact.
A log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.
In criminal law, the constitutional guarantee that a defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial. In civil law, the legal rights of someone who confronts an adverse action threatening liberty or property.
Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case in favor of one side or the other.
A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.
To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court to enter into the files or records of a case.
A body of 16-23 citizens who listen to evidence of criminal allegations, which is presented by the prosecutors, and determine whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offense. See also indictment and U.S. attorney.
Latin, meaning “you have the body.” A writ of habeas corpus generally is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner’s continued confinement. Federal judges receive petitions for a writ of habeas corpus from state prison inmates who say their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights in some way.
Evidence presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question, but heard about it from someone else. With some exceptions, hearsay generally is not admissible as evidence at trial.
A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.
1. The disputed point between parties in a lawsuit; 2. To send out officially, as in a court issuing an order.
The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies.
The official decision of a court finally resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit.
The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.
A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty which resulted in harm to the plaintiff.
A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.
An offense punishable by one year of imprisonment or less.
A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.
An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges’ questions.
A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.
In a criminal case, the defendant’s statement pleading “guilty” or “not guilty” in answer to the charges.
The rules for conducting a lawsuit; there are rules of civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure.
To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government
A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.
A command, issued under a court’s authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.
Statute of limitations
The time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begun. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of civil case or the crime charged.
Temporary restraining order
Akin to a preliminary injunction, it is a judge’s short-term order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted. Often referred to as a TRO.
Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.
A civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract.
The decision of a trial jury or a judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case.
Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.
A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.
A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.
If you’ve been accused of committing a crime, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney. At The Defenders, our attorneys help you understand and are committed to protecting your rights. Their focus is to develop a strong defense and aggressively defend your case. We are able to explain immediate and future consequences of actions you may take, including talking to the police, pleading guilty, and testifying at trial. Contact The Defenders today.