west palm beach criminal defense lawyer

CRIMINAL LAW TERMS & DEFINITIONS

Here are some of the common criminal law terms and definitions. This information is general in nature and is not intended as legal advice, but rather information which may be helpful in understanding criminal defense.

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Accessory
Someone who intentionally helps another person commit a felony (examples – giving advice before the crime, helping to conceal the evidence or the perpetrator). An accessory is usually not physically present during the crime.

Accomplice
Someone who helps another person (known as the principal) commit a crime. Unlike an accessory, an accomplice is usually present when the crime is committed. An accomplice is guilty of the same offense and usually receives the same sentence as the principal.

Accused
A person or persons formally charged but not yet tried for a crime.

Acquittal
A legal judgment, based on the decision of either a jury or a judge that an accused is not guilty of the crime for which he or she has been charged or tried.

Adjudication
A judgment rendered by the court after a finding of guilt.

Admissible Evidence
The evidence that a trial judge or jury may consider, because the rules of evidence deem it reliable.

Admission
Confession of a charge, an error, or a crime; acknowledgment. 

Allegation
A claim or statement of what a party intends to prove; the facts as one party claims they are.

Appeal
A request by the defense or prosecutor for a review of the case by the court of appeal.

Arraignment
The appearance of the defendant in court to enter his or her plea to the charges.

Assault
An unlawful act that places another person in reasonable fear of receiving an immediate battery. Also defined as an attempt to commit a battery. The defendant must have intended to injure the victim or make the victim reasonably fear being struck. Assault is intentional, not accidental.

Battery
The act of using unwanted force against another person which results in either bodily injury or offensive touching.

Bail / Bond
The money or property given to the court as security when an accused person is released before and during a trial with the agreement that the defendant will return to court when ordered to do so. Bail is forfeited if the defendant fails to return to court.

Best Evidence Rule
A rule of evidence that demands that the original of any document, photograph or recording be used as evidence at trial, rather than a copy. A copy will be allowed into evidence only if the original is unavailable.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. The jury must be convinced that the defendant committed each element of the crime before returning a guilty verdict.

Booking
Part of the process of being arrested in which the details of who a person is and why he or she was arrested are recorded in police records.

Burden of Proof
The duty of a party in a lawsuit to persuade the judge or jury that enough facts exist to prove the allegations (charges) of the case.

Cause of Action
One or more related charges, combined and made against a defendant for wrongs committed.

Change of Venue
A change in the location of a trial, usually granted to avoid prejudice against one of the parties.

Charge
A formal accusation or indictment filed by the prosecutor’s office that a specific person has committed a specific crime. Also known as pressing charges.

Circumstantial Evidence
Indirect evidence that implies that something occurred but doesn’t directly prove it.

Coercion
The use of physical force or threats to compel someone to commit an act against their will. 

Concurrent Sentence
Sentences for different offenses (crimes) that run together or are served at the same time.

Consecutive Sentence
Sentences that are successive and are served one after another. 

Declaration under Penalty of Perjury
A signed statement, sworn to be true by the signer, that will make the signer guilty of the crime of perjury if the statement is shown to be materially false -- meaning, the lie is relevant and significant to the case.

Deferred Sentence
Postponement or delay of a sentence to a future date.

Disclosure
The making known of a fact that had previously been hidden.

Discovery
The pre-trial devices that can be used by one party to obtain facts and information about the case from the other party in order to assist the party’s preparation for trial.

Due Process of Law
Procedures followed by law enforcement and courts to ensure the protection of an individual's rights as assigned by the Constitution. 

Expunge
To intentionally destroy, obliterate or strike out records or information in files, computers and other depositories.

Eye Witness
Person who sees a crime taking place.

False Imprisonment
Intentionally restraining another person without having the legal right to do so. It's not necessary that physical force be used; threats or a show of apparent authority are sufficient. False imprisonment is a misdemeanor and a tort (a civil wrong). If the perpetrator confines the victim for a substantial period of time (or moves him a significant distance) in order to commit a felony, the false imprisonment may become a kidnapping.

First Appearance
A first appearance is held in the jail within 24 hours of your arrest. You will attend this hearing if you have not already been released from jail on bond or your own recognizance. A judge will inform you of the charges against you, review the charging affidavit to determine if the minimal probable cause has been demonstrated to support your detention, discuss the hiring or appointment of an attorney, and should consider your release on bond or your own recognizance.
 
Felony
A felony is a serious criminal offense, usually punishable by a prison term or, in some cases, by death. Felonies are considered more severe than misdemeanors. Murder, extortion and kidnapping are some examples of felonies. Felonies are classified as 1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree or capital felonies.

Forensic Studies
Firearm, document, polygraph, DNA, medical, accounting, computer, handwriting experts and other known expert witnesses available to testify to their findings for court purposes. 

Grand Jury
A body of persons with the authority to investigate and accuse, but not to try cases. The grand jury will listen to and review evidence to see if it there are sufficient grounds to bring an individual to trial. 

Hearing
This is a legal proceeding (not a trial) held before a judge or administrative body. Evidence and arguments are presented in an effort to resolve a disputed factual or legal issue.

Homicide
The killing of one human being by another human being. The term applies to all such killings, criminal and non-criminal. Homicide is considered non-criminal in a number of situations, including deaths as the result of war and putting someone to death by the valid sentence of a court. It may be legally justified or excused, as in cases of self-defense or when someone is killed by another person who is attempting to prevent a violent felony. Criminal homicide occurs when a person purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another. Murder and manslaughter are both examples of criminal homicide.

House Arrest
House arrest (home confinement, home detention, electronic monitoring) is when a person is confined by authorities to his or her residence. House arrest is a lenient alternative to prison time or juvenile-detention time.

Hung Jury
A jury whose members cannot unanimously agree whether the accused is guilty or innocent.

Impeach
To impeach a witness is to introduce evidence intended to contradict testimony or to question his creditability.

Incarceration
Incarceration is when a person is confined to a jail or prison.

Indictment
A formal written accusation made by a grand jury and filed in court, alleging that a specific person has committed a specific crime.

Interrogation
Questioning, usually by the police of a suspect in custody. The suspect is not obligated to answer the questions, and the fact that he/she has remained silent generally cannot be used by the prosecution to help prove guilt. If the suspect has asked for a lawyer, the police must cease questioning. If they do not, they cannot use the answers against the suspect at trial.

Jail
Jails are often run by sheriff and/or local governments are designed to hold individuals awaiting trial or serving short sentences (364 days or less).

Judgment / Sentence
The official document of a judge’s disposition (decision) of a case and sentence of a defendant.

Jury Nullification
The acquitting of a defendant by a jury in disregard of the judge’s instruction and contrary to the jury’s findings of fact. Often occurs because the jury is sympathetic toward the defendant or law which the defendant is charged.

Larceny
Is another term for theft and typically means taking property belonging to another (without force) with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. If the taking is accompanied by force or fear directed against a person, it is robbery, a much more serious offense.

Misdemeanor
A crime, less serious than a felony, and punishable by fines or jail time. Misdemeanors are classified as 1st degree and 2nd degree misdemeanors and are handled in County Court. Petty theft, first-time drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident are some examples of misdemeanor crimes

Mistrial
A trial which is invalid because of some fundamental errors in procedure, wrongdoing or a hung jury. A judge can set the case for a new trial or retrial at a future date.

No Contest
A defendant neither admits nor denies the charges, letting them stand as is.

Notice of Appearance
Should you retain an attorney, he will file a Notice of Appearance with the court on your behalf. This document informs the judge, the prosecutor and the clerk’s office that your attorney represents you.

No Probable Cause
Insufficient grounds to hold the person who was arrested.

Own Recognizance (OR) / Personal Recognizance
In some cases (less serious crimes) this allows the defendant to get out of jail, without paying bail, by promising to appear in court when next required to be there. Only those with strong ties to the community (steady job, local family, and no history of failing to appear in court) are candidates for "OR" release. 
 
Parole
Parole is controlled release from a correctional facility of a prisoner who has served part of the term/sentence to which he or she was sentenced.

Plea Bargain / Negotiations
A negotiation between the defense and prosecution for a fair disposition of the case and must be approved by the court.

Prison
Prisons are operated by state governments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and are designed to hold individuals convicted of crimes.

Probation
Relief of all or part of a sentence on the promise of proper conduct but is closely supervised by the state and the probation officer to ensure that this person is not violating any laws.

Public Defender
A court appointed attorney for those defendants declared indigent (unable to hire private counsel). 

Search Warrant
An order signed by a judge for probable cause that directs owners of private property to allow the police to enter and search for items named in the warrant. In limited situations the police may search without a warrant, but they cannot use what they find at trial if the defense can show that there was no probable cause for the search.

Self-incrimination
The making of statements that might expose you to criminal prosecution, either now or in the future. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from forcing you to provide evidence (answering questions) that would or might lead to your prosecution for a crime.

Trial
Many cases are often resolved through negotiations and plea-bargains. If you decide with your attorney to take your case to trial it should be noted that a case may require substantial investigation and preparation. This preparation can include your attorney reviewing all testimony and evidence provided. In trials a Judge will decide the questions of law and the jury will decide your innocence or guilt. While most criminal offenses entitle you to a trial by jury, it should also be noted that some criminal offenses are tried only by a judge.