The Language of Criminal Law
Criminal Defense Glossary
The language of law is full of confusing terms and complex definitions. A criminal defense attorney may spend years learning these terms. If you are facing criminal charges, a criminal lawyer can explain what these terms mean for you and your case. To find an attorney in your area, simply fill out the form on this page.
Keep in mind these are just general descriptions. For the most accurate advice, consult a criminal defense attorney.
Appeal: a request to a higher court to overturn the decision made by a lower court. Appeals are intended to address legal and procedural problems and errors – they are not requests to reconsider the evidence. Some common grounds for appeal are: evidence was admitted that should not have been; evidence was excluded that should have been admitted; the defendant was not adequately represented by counsel; the jury heard something they should not have heard or was not properly instructed.
Bail: cash or equivalent value posted with the court to secure the release of a criminal defendant until the case is resolved.
Bond: security posted to secure bail, usually by a bondsman.
Double jeopardy: common term for the constitutional provision that guarantees a person may not be tried twice for the same crime. Under the rules of modern criminal procedure, however, the application of the protection against double jeopardy is very complex, and allows for circumstances which appear to be exceptions.
Expungement: the process of clearing or sealing a criminal record, including arrest, conviction and sentence.
Felony: a serious crime, punishable by more than one year in prison (along with fines, probation, and other consequences). Crimes are typically felonies when they are more serious in nature (involving harm to others, larger quantities of drugs, etc.) or repeat offenses. For instance, many states make a second-offense DUI a felony if it occurs within a certain period of time after the first.
Habeas corpus: a petition requiring that an incarcerated person be brought before the court to determine whether there is cause to hold him. Originally intended to compel the disclosure of charges against those who had been arrested in order to determine whether or not the crime was “bailable,” habeas petitions are now commonly used to allege in federal court that state prisoners are being held in violation of their rights.
Infraction: a minor legal violation that is not punishable by jail time. For instance, in many jurisdictions, parking tickets are infractions, as are minor traffic violations. Typically, these violations are resolved by payment of a fine.
Miranda warnings: constitutionally required advisement of the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney before law enforcement officers can question a suspect in custody.
Misdemeanor: a crime of lesser seriousness, punishable by not more than one year in jail (along with fines, probation, etc.) Generally, crimes like public intoxication, possession of very small quantities of certain drugs, and first offense DUIs are classified as misdemeanors.
Parole: release of a convict before completion of his or her sentence, and subject to monitoring and restrictions. Inmates who have served enough of their sentences to be eligible for parole are reviewed by a parole board, and parole may be granted or denied. Violation of the conditions of parole can result in revocation of parole, in which case the offender is returned to prison to serve out the remainder of the original sentence.
Probation: often confused with parole, probation is granted to a criminal defendant whose initial sentence is in whole or part suspended so long as he complies with the terms of his probation. Unlike parole, probation is ordered at sentencing. Probation typically requires submission to restrictions like avoiding drugs and alcohol, reporting to a probation officer, and maintaining or actively seeking employment. Terms of probation may include items specific to the offense as well-for instance, that the defendant not drive a car, submit to drug and alcohol testing, attend drug and alcohol counseling, make restitution, and refrain from contact with victims. If the terms of probation are violated the defendant can, upon hearing, be required to serve the suspended portion of his sentence.
Restitution: returning property or its value to the victim of a crime. To make restitution is to restore the victim to her previous position or to “pay back” what the defendant has taken from the victim. Often, probation is contingent on payment of restitution.
Vacate: when a judge sets aside or invalidates a previously entered order. This can include an order of conviction, or can relate to other orders entered in the course of the case, such as an order excluding evidence or requiring a party to produce certain records.
The above summaries of criminal law terms are by no means all-inclusive and are not legal advice. For the latest information on criminal law, speak to a criminal defense attorney in your area.