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  Criminal Defense CRIMINAL Definitions


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Criminal Definitions:

Aggravated Assault - An unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. This type of assault usually is accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm. (It is not necessary that injury result from an aggravated assault when a gun, knife, or other weapon is used which could and probably would result in serious personal injury if the crime were successfully completed.) Arraignment - A proceeding in which an individual who is accused of committing a crime is brought into court, told of the charges, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Arson - To unlawfully and intentionally damage, or attempt to damage, any real or personal property by fire or incendiary device.

Bail - Security given for the release of a criminal defendant or witness from legal custody (usually in the form of money) to secure his appearance on the day and time set by the court.

Bench Trial - Trial without a jury in which a judge decides which party prevails.

Brief - A written statement submitted by each party in a case that explains why the court should decide the case, or particular issues in a case, in that party's favor.

Burglary - Burglary is defined as the unlawful entry into a building or other structure with the intent to commit a felony or a theft. This definition includes: unlawful entry with intent to commit a larceny or felony; breaking and entering with intent to commit a larceny; housebreaking; safecracking; and all attempts to commit any of the aforementioned.(FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Definition).

Burden of Proof - All elements of crime must be proven by the State beyond a reasonable doubt.

Capital Felony - A felony case in which the death penalty may be imposed upon the defendant. The alternative sentence for a capital felony, when death is not imposed, is life in prison.

Capital Offense - A crime punishable by death.

Case Law - The law as reflected in the written decisions of the courts.

Chambers - A judge's office, typically including work space for the judge's law clerks and secretary.

Chief Judge - The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of a court; chief judges are determined by seniority.

Conviction - A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Counsel - Legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a case.

Criminal Homicide - The willful (non-negligent) killing of one human being by another.

Damages - Money paid by defendants to successful plaintiffs in civil cases to compensate the plaintiffs for their injuries.

Default Judgment - A judgment rendered in favor of the plaintiff because of the defendant's failure to answer or appear to contest the plaintiff's claim.

Deposition - 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.

Discovery - The process by which lawyers learn about their opponent's case in preparation for trial. Typical tools of discovery include depositions, interrogatories, requests for admissions, and requests for documents. All of these devices help the lawyer learn the relevant facts and collect and examine any relevant documents or other materials.

Docket - A log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.

Domestic Violence - Means an act of violence upon a person with whom the actor is or has been involved in an intimate relationship. Domestic violence also includes any other crime against a person or any municipal ordinance violation against a person when used as a method of coercion, control, punishment, intimidation, or revenge directed against a person with whom the actor is or has been involved in an intimate relationship. (CRS 12-36-135(a)).

Drug Abuse Violations - Violations of State and local laws relating to the unlawful possession, sale, use, growing, manufacturing, and making of narcotic drugs. The relevant substances include opium or cocaine and their derivatives (morphine, heroin, and codeine); marijuana; synthetic narcotics (Demerol, Methadone), and dangerous non-narcotic drugs (GHB, Rohypnol, and Exctasy). Elements - Essential parts of a crime are called its "elements". All the elements of a crime must be proven by the State beyond a reasonable doubt.

Evidence - 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.

Federal Public Defender - An attorney employed by the federal courts on a full-time basis to provide legal defense to defendants who are unable to afford counsel. The judiciary administers the federal defender program pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act.

Felony - Crime punishable by prison for more than one year. Punishment for some felonies (capital felonies) includes either life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Grand Jury - 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.

Hearsay - Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in court.

Habeas Corpus - A writ (court order) that is usually used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of his imprisonment. Someone imprisoned in state court proceedings can file a petition in federal court for a "writ of habeas corpus," seeking to have the federal court review whether the state has violated his or her rights under the U.S. Constitution. Federal prisoners can file habeas petitions as well. A writ of habeas corpus may also be used to bring a person in custody before the court to give testimony or to be prosecuted.

Hate Crimes - A criminal offense committed against a person or property which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnicity/national origin, or sexual orientation.

High and Aggravated Misdemeanor - A higher level misdemeanor which carries a punishment of a fine of up to $5000.00 or a jail sentence of up to one year or both. When a crime is deemed "high and aggravated", it generally carries higher minimum punishment than a lesser or "simple" misdemeanor.

Homicide - Murder and non-negligent manslaughter are defined as the willful (non-negligent) killing of one human being by another. Not included in this definition are deaths caused by negligence, suicides, or accidental deaths. Attempts to commit murder are classified as aggravated assaults.


1. The process of calling a witness's testimony into doubt. For example, if the attorney can show that the witness may have fabricated portions of his testimony, the witness is said to be "impeached;"

2. The constitutional process whereby the House of Representatives may "impeach" (accuse of misconduct) high officers of the federal government, who are then tried by the Senate.

Indictment - 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

Injunction - A court order prohibiting a defendant from performing a specific act, or compelling a defendant to perform a specific act.


1. The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case;

2. The geographic area over which the court has authority to decide cases.

Jurisprudence - The study of law and the structure of the legal system.

Jury - The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact.

Jury Instructions - A judge's directions to the jury before it begins deliberations regarding the factual questions it must answer and the legal rules that it must apply.

Larceny (Theft) - The unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another.

Liquor Law Violations - The violation of laws or ordinances prohibiting: manufacture, sale, transporting, furnishing, possessing of intoxicating liquor; maintaining unlawful drinking places; bootlegging; operating a still; furnishing liquor to a minor or intemperate person; using a vehicle for illegal transportation of liquor; drinking on a train or public conveyance; and all attempts to commit any of the aforementioned. (Drunkenness and driving under the influence are not included in this definition.)

Magistrate Judge - A judicial officer of a district court who conducts initial proceedings in criminal cases, decides criminal misdemeanor cases, conducts many pretrial civil and criminal matters on behalf of district judges, and decides civil cases with the consent of the parties.

Misdemeanor - An offense or crime which is not a felony. Punishment for a misdemeanor is typically a fine or possibly jail time of less than one year.

Mistrial - An invalid trial, caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again with the selection of a new jury.

Motion - A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.

Motor Vehicle - A motor vehicle is defined as a self-propelled vehicle that runs on land and not on rails. Examples of motor vehicles are automobiles, trucks, buses, motorcycles, snowmobiles, golf carts, etc. Theft of farm equipment, bulldozers, airplanes, boats, and construction equipment are not included.

Motor Vehicle Theft - Motor vehicle theft is defined as the theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle, including joy riding.

Murder - Non-Negligent Manslaughter - The killing of another person intentionally and with premeditation.

Negligent Manslaughter - The killing of one human being by another through gross negligence.

Nolo Contendere - No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

Opinion - A judge's written explanation of the decision of the court.

Oral Argument - An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges' questions

Petit Jury (or trial jury) - A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons. Federal civil juries consist of at least six persons.

Petty Offense - A federal misdemeanor punishable by six months or less in prison.

Plea - In a criminal case, the defendant's statement pleading "guilty" or "not guilty" in answer to the charges.

Pleadings - Written statements filed with the court which describe a party's legal or factual assertions about the case.

Precedent - A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally "follow precedent"-meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case.

Pre-Sentence Report - A report prepared by a court's probation officer, after a person has been convicted of an offense, summarizing for the court the background information needed to determine the appropriate sentence.

Presumption of Innocence - The Federal Constitution due process clause requires that anyone charged with committing a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty by the State. Separate guarantees are provided to citizens under their State Constitutions.

Pre-Trial Conference - A meeting of the judge and lawyers to plan the trial, to discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, to review proposed evidence and witnesses, and to set a trial schedule. Typically, the judge and the parties also discuss the possibility of settlement of the case.

Pre-Trial Services - A department of the district court that conducts an investigation of a criminal defendant's background in order to help a judge decide whether to release the defendant into the community before trial.

Probation - A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which the court releases convicted defendants under supervision of a probation officer, who makes certain that the defendant follows certain rules (e.g., gets a job, gets drug counseling, etc.);

Probation Officer - Officers of the probation office of a court. Probation officer duties include conducting pre-sentence investigations, preparing pre-sentence reports on convicted defendants, and supervising released defendants

Pro Se - A Latin term meaning "on one's own behalf"; in courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.

Prosecute - To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government.

Record - A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.

Remand - The act of an appellate court sending a case to a lower court for further proceedings.

Reverse - The act of an appellate court setting aside the decision of a trial court. A reversal is often accompanied by a remand to the lower court for further proceedings.

Robbery - Robbery is defined as the taking or attempting to take anything of value under confrontational circumstances from the control, custody or care of another person by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear of immediate harm.

Sentence - The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.

Sentencing Guidelines - A set of rules and principles established by the United States Sentencing Commission that trial judges use to determine the sentence for a convicted defendant.

Sequester - To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.

Sex Offenses-Forcible

Any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and/or against that person's will; or not forcibly or against the person's will where the victim is incapable of giving consent.

A. Forcible Rape-The carnal knowledge of a person, forcibly and/or against that person's will; or not forcibly or against the person's will where the victim is incapable of giving consent because of his/her temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity (or because of his/her youth).

B. Forcible Sodomy-Oral or anal sexual intercourse with another person, forcibly and/or against that person's will; or not forcibly against the persons will where the victim is incapable of giving consent because of his/her youth or because of his/her temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity.

C. Sexual Assault With An Object-The use of an object or instrument to unlawfully penetrate, however slightly, the genital or anal opening of the body of another person, forcibly and/or against that person's will; or not forcibly or against the person's will; where the victim is incapable of giving consent because of his/her youth or because of his/her temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity.

D. Forcible Fondling-The touching of the private body parts of another person for the purpose of sexual gratification, forcibly and/or against that person's will; or, not forcibly or against the person's will where the victim is incapable of giving consent because of his/her youth or because of his/her temporary or permanent mental incapacity.

Sex Offenses-Non-Forcible

Unlawful, non-forcible sexual intercourse.

A. Incest-Non-forcible sexual intercourse between persons who are related to each other within the degrees wherein marriage is prohibited by law.

B. Statutory Rape-Non-forcible sexual intercourse with a person who is under the statutory age of consent.

Statute - A law passed by a legislature.

Subpoena - A command, issued under authority of a court or other authorized government entity, to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Subpoena Duces Tecum - A command to a witness to appear and produce documents.

Summary Judgment - A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when it is not necessary to resolve any factual disputes in the case.

Temporary Restraining Order - Prohibits a person from taking an action that is likely to cause irreparable harm. This differs from an injunction in that it may be granted immediately, without notice to the opposing party, and without a hearing. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held. Sometimes referred to as a "T.R.O."

Testimony - Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.

Transcript - A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial, or during some other formal conversation, such as a hearing or oral deposition.

U.S. Attorney - A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute and defend cases for the federal government. The U.S. Attorney employs a staff of Assistant U.S. Attorneys who appear as the government's attorneys in individual cases.

Venue - The geographical location in which a case is tried.

Verdict - 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.

Voir Dire - The process by which judges and lawyers select a trial jury from among those eligible to serve, by questioning them to make certain that they would fairly decide the case. "Voir dire" is a phrase meaning "to speak the truth."

Warrant - A written order authorizing official action by law enforcement officials, usually directing them to arrest the individual named in the warrant. A search warrant orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence.

Weapon Law Violations - The violation of laws or ordinances dealing with weapon offenses, regulatory in nature, such as: manufacture, sale, or possession of deadly weapons; carrying deadly weapons, concealed or openly; furnishing deadly weapons to minors; aliens possessing deadly weapons; and all attempts to commit any of the aforementioned.

Witness - A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

Writ - A formal written command or order, issued by the court, requiring the performance of a specific act.

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