acquit To find not guilty.
affidavit A written statement made under oath.
affirmative defense A defense such as insanity, self-defense, entrapment, necessity, duress, etc. If proved by the defendant, it makes the defendant not guilty of the crime even if the prosecution can prove the elements of the crime.
age of majority The age a person is considered an adult for legal purposes.
aggravated assault According to the UCR, an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. Normally committed with a weapon.
appeal A request that an appellate court review a decision of a lower court.
appellate court A court that hears appeals; it is not a trial court. An appeals court.
attorney A lawyer; legal counsel; attorney at law. A person authorized to practice law.
attorney at law See attorney.
arraignment A court hearing in which the defendant must enter a plea, e.g., guilty or not guilty.
arrest To take a person into custody for the purpose of charging the person with a crime.
arrestee The person arrested.
arson According to the UCR, any willful or malicious burning of another’s property.
assault Technically, the immediate threat of attacking someone, but usually it means a physical attack on another person. See battery.
assault with a deadly weapon The crime of attacking someone with a weapon that could cause fatal injuries. See aggravated assault.
bail A pretrial procedure permitting an arrested person to stay out of jail by depositing a set amount of money as security that the person will show up for trial.
bailiff A police officer assigned to the courtroom to keep order.
battery The illegal touching of another person, usually an attack. When used in “assault and battery,” the assault is the threat of attack and the battery the physical attack itself.
bench The judge’s desk in the courtroom.
bench trial A trial held before a judge alone without a jury.
bill of attainder A legislative enactment that punishes a person in place of a trial. Banned by the U.S. Constitution.
Bill of Rights The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which describe the rights and protections guaranteed to each citizen.
booking The official process of recording the arrest, which may include taking fingerprints and photographs of the accused.
bunco A con game; a swindle.
burglary The illegal entry into any building with the intent to commit a crime, such as theft.
Bureau of Justice Statistics An agency of the Department of Justice that collects crime-related statistics.
burden of proof The responsibility of proving facts in a case. In a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
capital crime A crime punishable by death or life imprisonment.
capital punishment The death penalty.
case in chief One side’s trial evidence. In a criminal trial, the prosecution presents its evidence first. After it rests its case, the defense presents its evidence.
case law Law made by judges interpreting constitutions, statutes, and other case law.
citizen review boards An official group, staffed by ordinary citizens, authorized to review complaints of police misconduct.
civil case A lawsuit between individuals or organizations, which normally seeks monetary compensation for damages.
civil court A court that handles civil cases.
civilian review boards See citizen review boards.
commissioner An attorney who acts as a judge.
common law (1) the unwritten law in England that evolved over centuries and is the basis for U.S. law. (2) Case law in the United States as opposed to statutory law.
community policing A type of policing that stresses community interaction with the police. Also called community-based policing or community-oriented policing.
corrections The part of the criminal justice system that deals with convicted criminals; it includes jails, prisons, parole, and probation.
crime An illegal act punishable upon conviction in a court.
crime rate The amount of crime per so many people in the population.
criminal lawyer A prosecutor or defense attorney.
criminal negligence Doing an act with an extreme lack of care for the consequences. It is a state of mind requirement for certain crimes, e.g., involuntary manslaughter.
criminal procedure The rules for processing someone through the criminal justice system.
criminology The study of crime.
cross-examination The questioning of an opponent’s witnesses at trial.
deadly force Force that poses a high risk of death or serious injury to its human target.
death row A separate section of a prison reserved for inmates awaiting execution.
defendant The accused in a criminal trial.
defense attorney The attorney for the accused.
delinquent act In most states, this means an act that if done by an adult would be a crime. Some states, however, also include status offenses as delinquent acts.
determinate sentence A prison sentence for a specific length of time, e.g., five years. A fixed sentence.
deterrence The idea that fear of punishment will prevent crimes. For example, some people might be deterred from robbing banks because they know that bank robbers go to jail.
direct examination An attorney’s initial questioning of his or her own witness.
discretion The power to choose.
discretionary jurisdiction The power of some appeals courts, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, to accept or refuse to hear particular appeals. See writ of certiorari.
driving under the influence (DUI) The crime of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
due process In the Fifth and 14th amendments, the basic requirement that no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property without fair procedures.
en banc The full bench of justices. Each federal circuit court has from six to 27 justices, but most cases are heard by panels of three judges. When all the judges in a circuit hear a case together, they hear it en banc.
entrapment The affirmative defense that the defendant would not have committed the crime if the police had not enticed the defendant.
evidence The means of determining facts in a trial. Testimony, physical objects, and exhibits are examples of evidence.
exclusionary rule A judicial rule that prevents the government from introducing illegally obtained evidence at a criminal trial.
fact finder The one responsible for deciding the facts of a particular case and coming to a verdict; either a judge or jury.
false imprisonment The crime of making a false arrest or unlawfully taking someone into custody.
felony A serious crime usually punished by one or more years of imprisonment in a state or federal penitentiary.
felony murder The rule that if any person is killed during a felony, the criminal can be charged with murder.
fitness hearing A special hearing in juvenile court to determine whether a juvenile should be tried in adult court.
fixed sentence See determinate sentence.
forfeiture The confiscation of assets either used in or derived from illegal activity.
forgery The crime of falsely signing a document with the intent to defraud.
fraud The crime of obtaining another’s property through lies and deceit.
habeas corpus, writ of A court order requiring authorities to release a prisoner because the court has found that the prisoner is being illegally detained. (Habeas corpus is Latin meaning “you have the body.”)
hearing Any court proceeding, such as a trial.
homicide Literally, human killing. The crimes of homicide range from different degrees of murder to different kinds of manslaughter.
hypothetical A made-up example.
impanel To select a jury.
incarceration rate The number of prisoners per 100,000 population.
incorrigible Juveniles who cannot be controlled by their parents.
indentured servant In U.S. history, a person who contracted in return for transportation to America to work for free for a set number of years, usually two to seven.
indeterminate sentence A prison sentence of an indefinite period of time, for example “one year to 30 years.” Under this sentence, prisoners are released when the parole board determines they are rehabilitated.
involuntary manslaughter A killing caused by criminal negligence or an unintended killing that takes place during a misdemeanor offense.
jurisdiction (1) the geographical area over which particular courts have power; (2) state and federal government.
jurisprudence The philosophy of law, or the science that studies the principles of law.
lawyer See attorney.
lynching A form of mob violence that punishes an accused person without a legal trial. The word comes from the American Revolution and a Colonel Charles Lynch of Virginia, who urged crowds to beat and frighten Tories (supporters of Britain).
magistrate A court officer who issues warrants; normally a lower-court judge who handles pretrial proceedings or presides over misdemeanor trials.
marshal A law-enforcement officer who normally performs duties connected with a court.
malice aforethought A state of mind requirement for murder. It is either an intent to kill or an intent to do an extremely dangerous act with a conscious disregard for the consequences.
mayhem The crime of mutilating or cutting off a part of someone’s body.
mens rea Guilty mind; the state of mind requirement for crimes.
Miranda warning A advisory statement about the rights of suspects that police must read to suspects in custody before questioning them. The U.S. Supreme Court first required this statement in its Miranda v. Arizona decision in 1966.
misdemeanor A crime less serious than a felony, usually punished by a fine or imprisonment up to one year in a local jail.
mitigate To make less serious. Mitigating circumstances are circumstances surrounding a crime that tend to make it less serious.
Model Penal Code A criminal code composed by legal experts at the American Law Institute as a standard that legislatures may want to adopt. Unless sections of it are adopted by jurisdictions, it has no legal authority.
motion A formal request made to a court.
motion to suppress A request that the court exclude particular evidence from the trial because it was illegally obtained.
murder The unlawful killing of another person with malice aforethought.
National Institute of Justice The research agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.
nolo contendere plea A plea of no contest. (Latin for “I will not contest it.”) It has the same effect as a guilty plea except that the person does not admit guilt. Thus if someone files a lawsuit against the person, the person has not admitted guilt.
notary, or notary public An official authorized to verify signatures on documents or attest to affidavits.
pardon An act by the governor or president that forgives all or part of a prisoner’s sentence.
parens patriae The idea that the state takes the role of parents to protect juveniles. (Latin meaning “parent for the country.”)
parole The conditional release of a prisoner before the end of a prison term.
parole board A board appointed by the governor that determines when prisoners may be released on parole.
penal Subject to punishment. A penal code is a list of laws defining crimes.
penitentiary A state or federal maximum-security prison.
peremptory challenge During jury selection, an attorney’s rejection of a prospective juror that requires no reason be given to the court. Each side has a limited number of these challenges.
perjury The crime of lying about a material fact while testifying under oath.
plaintiff The party in a lawsuit who sues the other party.
plea bargain An agreement struck between a criminal defendant and prosecutor. In exchange for a guilty plea from the defendant, the prosecutor will either (1) drop one of several charges, (2) lower the charge, or (3) recommend a light sentence.
precedent An issue of law previously decided by a court that other courts follow.
probable cause Evidence that an independent, cautious person would have good reason to believe.
probation An alternative to prison. This sentence requires the offender to follow certain conditions, usually under the supervision of a probation officer.
prosecute To try someone for a crime.
prosecution The government’s side in a criminal case.
prosecutor The government’s attorney who presents the case against a criminal defendant.
prosecutorial discretion The prosecutor’s authority to decide what charges to bring and how to pursue a criminal case.
prostitution Crime of engaging in a sexual act with another in exchange for money or other compensation.
public defender An attorney working for a government agency (the public defender’s office) that defends criminal suspects who cannot afford their own attorney.
rape According to the UCR, the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.
receiving stolen property The crime of buying or getting property that the buyer knows is stolen.
recidivism The committing of further crimes by offenders after they have been punished for previous convictions.
redirect examination An attorney’s requestioning of his or her own witness after cross-examination.
rehabilitation Helping convicted offenders change their lives so that they can lead productive lives in society.
restitution Direct payments made from criminal to victim as compensation for a crime.
relevant Pertinent, appropriate, related to the subject at hand.
robbery The taking of a person’s property by violence or threat of violence; forcible stealing.
search In Katz v. U.S. (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court defined a search as any governmental intrusion into something in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
seizure Any taking into possession, custody, or control. Property may be seized, but so may people. An arrest is one form of seizure.
sentence A punishment for a crime.
sheriff A county law-enforcement officer.
specific intent The intent to do a prohibited act on purpose; the intent required for certain crimes, such as theft (which requires the specific intent of never returning the property).
sodomy Homosexual or oral copulation.
status offense An offense, such as truancy or running away from home, that would not be a crime if committed by an adult.
statute A written law; a law enacted by the legislature.
statutory law See statute.
sting operation Undercover police work that sets up a situation to catch criminals in the act.
street crime A class of crimes usually involving force or violence, such as murder, assault, robbery, or rape.
strict liability The imposition of criminal responsibility regardless of a person’s intent.
testify To make statements as a witness under oath.
testimony Statements made by witnesses under oath.
training schools Large secure facilities that hold juveniles found delinquent.
treason The crime of a U.S. citizen helping an enemy of the United States.
vandalism The crime of intentionally defacing or destroying another person’s property.
venue The location of a trial.
verdict The decision of guilty or not guilty made by the jury or judge.
victimless crimes Crimes, such as prostitution and possession of illegal drugs, in which everyone involved chooses to be involved.
victimology The branch of criminology that studies crime victims.
vigilantes Persons who illegally take the law into their own hands and punish suspected lawbreakers.
voluntary manslaughter The intentional killing of another person done under extreme provocation and in the heat of anger.
voir dire During jury selection, the questioning of prospective jurors.
warrant A court order issued by a judge authorizing a search, an arrest, or a seizure of evidence of a crime.
white-collar crime A class of property crimes that are usually job-related, such as embezzlement, bribery, and consumer fraud.
writ A written court order.
writ of certiorari An order from an appeals court stating that the court will hear a case. These writs are granted by appeals courts that have discretionary jurisdiction.
Other Legal Dictionaries
American Bar Association: Glossary
Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (1856)
Circuit Court of Winnebago County: Glossary of Legal Terminology
Court TV: Glossary of Legal Terms
Duhaime’s Law Dictionary
Findlaw: Legal Dictionary
Fourth Judicial District (MN): Legal Terminology
Harvard Law School: One-L Dictionary
Her Majesty’s Court Service: Glossary (Legal Language)
Jurist: Legal Dictionaries
'Lectric Law Library: Legal Lexicon’s Lyceum
Legal Information Institute: Wex
Lexis Nexis: Glossary of Legal Terms
19th Judicial Circuit: Glossary of Legal Terms
Nolo: Everybody’s Legal Glossary
State Bar of Arizona: Legalese Dictionary
U.S. Courts: Glossary of Legal Terms
West’s Encyclopedia of American Law
Wikipedia: List of Legal Terms