Glossary of Criminal Law Terms

Basic definitions & meanings of common legal terminology associated with criminal defense law in Texas

After being charged with a crime, there are many new terms and phrases a person is likely to encounter as they proceed through the criminal justice system. While the meaning of these terms are clear to lawyers and judges who have practiced law their whole lives, they may leave you feeling confused and frightened. For this reason, we have provided this glossary to help defendants and their families better understand the legal process and the jargon that goes with.

This list of commonly used legal terms below relates to criminal law and is general in nature. It’s impossible to compile a list of all the legal terminology used in every case on one page, so we’ve only included the most common phrases and words you’re most likely to hear. If you’d like further legal counsel, don’t hesitate to contact our experienced criminal defense law firm in Houston, Texas.

glossary of common criminal law legal terms

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Common Criminal Defense Legal Definitions

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Abuse: The general term for causing physical, mental or emotional harm to another person. Abuse can occur in many different scenarios, including those involving physical violence, sexual abuse, spousal abuse and child sex abuse.

Accessory: A person not physically present during the crime but who intentionally aids another individual in the committing of a crime, such as giving the perpetrator advice or helping conceal the evidence.

Accomplice: A person who was physically present when a crime was committed and who helped the principal offender in the criminal act. Accomplices typically receive the same sentence as the principal perpetrator.

Accused: A person charged with a crime but who has not yet been tried.

Acquittal: A verdict by the jury or judge that the accused is not guilty of committing the crime for which they were accused.

Admissible: Referring to legally-obtained evidence that a judge or jury is allowed to consider to determine the defendant’s innocence or guilt.

Allegation: A statement or claim that one party wishes to prove based on facts.

Appeal: A request to a higher (appellate) court that a case be reexamined and reviewed. Appeals are typically made by the defense or State and the appellate court may overrule the decision of a lower court.

Appellate Court: A higher court with the power to overrule the verdict of a lower court or tribunal in an Appeals case. For example, U.S. circuit courts review appeals from district courts, and the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals reviews appeals from the circuit courts.

Arraignment: A criminal proceeding during which the defendant is brought to court, informed of the charges filed against them, and asked to say what they plead (guilty, not guilty or no contest).

Arson: A malicious act of setting a fire to destroy property or murder.

Assault: The criminal act of inflicting, or threatening to inflict, bodily harm on another person. Assault charges can include aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, attempted assault, sexual assault, assault with intent, assault and battery, etc.

Bail/Bond: Money, property or other assets given to the court as a security measure to ensure the accused person returns to trial if they are released before and/or during a trial. If the defendant returns to court on time, their bail is returned - usually minus a fee taken by a bond company. If the defendant fails to return, their bail is forfeited. (Learn more about bond conditions.)

Battery: The intentional and unlawful use of force against another person, resulting in serious injury or death.

Bench Trial: A trial during which a judge hears the facts of the case and gives a verdict without a jury present; also known as a “court trial.”

Best Evidence Rule: A rule stating that the original form of evidence - document, photograph, recording, etc. - must be used at trial, rather than a copy. Copies are only permitted as evidence if the original is unavailable or lost.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: The burden of proof that the government or prosecution must establish in a criminal case in order to secure a guilty verdict. Prosecutors must deliver facts and evidence to the judge or jury to prove that the defendant committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

Booking: When a person is arrested by police, read their Miranda rights, told their charges and fingerprinted.

Bribery: Receiving or attempting to solicit payment for a private favor from a government official.

Brief: A written summary of a case’s facts and how criminal law relates to it with the purpose of arguing one side’s position; also called a “memorandum of law.”

Burden of Proof: The legal standard one side must meet to prove their case; also known as “standard of proof.” In criminal cases, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution to show that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense has no burden to prove anything.

Capital Offense: A crime punishable by the death penalty, also known as “capital punishment.” Capital offenses are typically crimes like homicide or murder that are violent in nature. (Learn more about capital punishment.)

Charge: A formal allegation or legal indictment filed by a prosecutor against a person accused of committing a specific crime; known as “pressing charges.”

Circumstantial Evidence: All evidence in a case except for witness testimony, including fingerprints, photographs and other physical evidence.

Coercion: Using physical force or threats to convince a person to commit an act against their will.

Conviction: A final ruling by a judge or jury that a criminal defendant is guilty of the crime they were charged with.

Concurrent Sentence: Punishments for separate crimes that are served simultaneously, at the same time.

Confidentiality Agreement: A contract between two or more parties agreeing to keep certain information secret and private; also known as a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Consecutive Sentence: Punishments for separate crimes that are served successively, one after another.

Corroborating Evidence: Additional facts that strengthen or support initial evidence in a case.

Counterfeiting: The act of illegally forging or copying something with the aim committing fraud or deceiving someone; typically relating to money.

Cross-Examination: During a trial, questioning a witness brought forth by the other side.

Custody: When a person is lawfully detained, jailed or imprisoned by police or other legal authority for the purposes of ensuring their appearance in court to answer a criminal charge.

Cybercrime: Criminal offenses committed on a computer or via the Internet. Computer crimes can include cybersquatting, cyberstalking, cybertheft, email interception, Internet fraud, online solicitation and possession or distribution of child pornography.

Declaration under Penalty of Perjury: A signed statement that makes the signer guilty of perjury if their statements are later proven to be false. Typically, the statement is considered significant material evidence to a case.

Defendant: The person accused of a crime in a criminal case.

Deferred Adjudication: A special type of probation or court-mandated supervision wherein a person’s charged are dismissed after completing a specified term limit. If the rules set down by deferred adjudication are broken, the judge has access to a full range of sentencing options.

Deferred Sentence: Delaying or postponing sentencing to a future date.

Deposition: A verbal statement made before a legally authorized representative. Depositions are often given by potential witnesses in a case and used for discovery purposes or as evidence later in the trial.

Discovery: A pre-trial tactic used by one side to get another side to disclose certain facts and evidence about the case.

Dismissal: The formal dropping or removal of criminal charges against the defendant. Dismissal can be “with prejudice” (prevents identical lawsuits from being filed against the defendant later on) or “without prejudice” (allows later filings to occur).

Domestic Violence: Assault, battery or other form of violence between members of a household; typically against a spouse or child.

Drug Offense: The possession, cultivation, distribution, manufacturing or trafficking of illegal controlled substances or drug paraphernalia - including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription drugs, etc. (Learn more about drug offenses.)

Due Process: Certain procedures and standards that must be followed by law enforcement and the courts to ensure the rights of defendants as stated in the U.S. Constitution and federal criminal law. Among these entitlements are the standards that every person has the right to a fair and impartial trial, the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.

Embezzlement: The fraudulent act of illegally transferring the assets of another person or business - such as money or property - into the embezzler’s personal possession and benefit.

Exclusionary Rule: Law stating that evidence obtained illegally in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights will not be admissible in court before a judge and jury. For example, if police did not have a warrant when searching and seizing drugs from the defendant’s residence, any evidence they found may not be admissible in court.

Exculpatory Evidence: Evidence showing that the defendant is innocent of a crime.

Expungement: The legal process for sealing criminal records from public view.

Extortion: The criminal act of threatening, intimidating or engaging in fraudulent behavior in order to obtain money or property from another person or organization.

Failure to Register: Failing to register as a sex offender on the national sex offender registry list. This is punishable as a separate crime.

False Arrest / Imprisonment: Unlawfully restraining another person or restricting their personal liberty by use of force, threats or deceit without having the legal authority to do so. Can be done by a peace officer, citizen or other individual. False imprisonment for long periods of time or when moved a significant distance may constitute kidnapping.

Finding: A formal conclusion reached by a judge, jury or regulatory agency regarding a significant fact in a case.

First Appearance: A pretrial hearing typically held within 24 hours of arrest during which a judge informs the defendant of the basis for their arrest, discusses their rights, helps appoint them legal counsel if necessary and considers release by bond; also known as the “initial appearance.” The first appearance is different from the arraignment where a defendant must enter a plea.

Felony: A serious crime, typically punishable by at least one year in prison and more severe than a misdemeanor. Felonies are classified by order of most serious to least serious as: capital felonies, 1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree and state jail felonies.

Forgery: The fraudulent act of creating a false document to be used as the real one.

Fraud: The criminal act of misrepresenting the truth or intentionally concealing facts to deceive another person or organization to their financial harm - included bank fraud, credit card fraud, healthcare fraud, tax fraud, insurance fraud, investment fraud, securities fraud and other financial schemes.

Grand Jury: A group of 16-23 citizens whose job it is to listen to evidence presented by lawyers from both sides and determine if there is probable cause to bring an individual to trial. Grand juries have the authority to investigate and accuse, not to convict.

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Habeas Corpus: Latin for “you have the body.” In criminal law, habeas corpus is a writ forcing law enforcement officers to bring forward a prisoner they are holding and provide a reason why the prisoner should still be detained. Habeas corpus is commonly filed by prisoners who believe their constitutional rights have been violated by state officials.

Hearing: A legal proceeding in which evidence and arguments are presented to a judge in order to resolve a legal issue. A hearing is different from a trial, which is before a jury.

Hearsay: Testimony from a witness who did not observe the crime in question, but rather heard it from another source. This evidence is usually not admissible in court.

Homicide: The legal term for the killing of one person by another, lawfully or unlawfully. Types of homicide include: criminal homicide (murder and manslaughter), excusable or justifiable homicide (self-defense), negligent or reckless homicide and vehicular homicide.

House Arrest: A lenient alternative sentence to prison where a defendant is confined to his or her place of residence and monitored by authorities; also known as “home confinement.”

Hung Jury: When the members of a jury cannot unanimously agree whether the defendant is guilty or innocent.

Immunity: A protection granted by the court to a witness guaranteeing they won’t be charged with a crime for disclosing certain criminal evidence.

Inadmissible: Facts or testimony that cannot be used as evidence in a case based on the rules of evidence.

Incarceration: Confinement of a person in prison or jail.

Indecent Contact: A child sex offense where an adult causes a child or minor to engage in sexual contact or engages in sexually contact with the child. (Learn more)

Indecent Exposure: A child sex offense where an adult exposes in appropriate body part, or causes the child to expose an inappropriate body part, with the intent to arouse or gratify their sexual desire. (Learn more)

Indictment: A formal charge made by the grand jury, declaring in court that there is sufficient evidence against the defendant to proceed with having a trial; commonly used for felonies.

Injunction: An order from the court preventing a person or side from taking an action until further fact-finding (preliminary injunction) is completed.

Jail: A holding cell for less serious criminal offenses and misdemeanors; different from prison.

Jury: A randomly selected group of six or twelve people chosen to hear the evidence in a trial and provide a verdict of “innocent” or “guilty.”

Leniency: A ruling or recommendation that the sentencing of a convicted defendant be less than the maximum punishment allowed by law.

Litigation: A civil lawsuit, criminal case or other legal action. Litigation participants (plaintiff and defendant) are called “litigants.”

Manslaughter: A type of homicide where malice did not play a role in the killing of the victim, though negligence may have.

Material Evidence: Evidence which is relevant to the case.

Miranda Rights / Warning: A legal statement which, by law, every person must be read upon being arrested, taken into custody or questioned by authorities. These rights (established by the 1966 case Miranda vs. Arizona) refer to a person’s right to avoid self-incrimination and state that 1) a person has the right to remain silent, 2) anything they say can be used against them in court, 3) a person has the right to ask for an attorney before answering questions and 4) an attorney will be provided if the defendant cannot afford to hire one.

Misdemeanor: A criminal offense that is less serious than a felony and punishable by a maximum of 1 year in prison. Misdemeanors are classified as Class A, Class B and Class C.

Mistrial: A trial that’s ruled invalid due to fundamental procedural errors or a hung jury. A new jury must be selected and a new trial date set.

Molestation: The unwanted physical, emotional or sexual harassment or persecution of another person, such as child molestation.

Money Laundering: A federal white-collar offense involving the unlawful transferring of money or assets through legitimate accounts so that the original source is untraceable.

Motion: A request made to the court or judge asking for a decision to be made on an important issue pertaining to the case.

No Contest: A plea in which the defendant neither admits guilt nor innocence regarding a charge, letting them remain neutral; also called “nolo contendere.”

Nolle Prosse/Prosequi: Latin for “we shall no longer persecute.” Refers to when a document, indictment or other information is dismissed by the prosecution or court. Nolle prosequi is a formal declaration that the charges against a defendant are altogether dropped without regard to the outcome of the trial.

Nondisclosure Agreement: In criminal cases, a legally-binding contract between all parties agreeing to keep certain information about the ruling and sentencing secret and private; also known as a confidentiality agreement.

Notice of Appearance: A formal document filed by an attorney on their client’s behalf telling the judge and court that they will be representing the defendant.

Nullification: Relating to juries, nullification is when a jury acquits the defendant or dismisses his or her charges despite instructions laid out by the judge. Jury nullification can occur when a jury is more sympathetic to a defendant or has issues with the law being applied to the case.

Objection: A formal disagreement with a statement or procedure being put on the written record in a court case. The judge can choose to either overrule or allow (sustain) the objection.

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Pandering: The sex offense of hiring a prostitute, soliciting customers for a prostitute or attempting to secure a place of business for a prostitute; also the crime of selling sexually explicit material openly.

Parole: A supervised, controlled release of a criminal from prison or a correction facility after they have served part of the term to which they were sentenced.

Perjury: Lying or giving misleading statements in court or while under oath. Perjury is punishable as a criminal offense.

Plea / Plea Bargain: The defendant’s formal response to the charges against them: guilty, not guilt or no contest. The plea is typically made during the arraignment.

Pretrial Conference: A meeting that takes place before the trial during which the judge, prosecution and defense discuss which evidence should be admissible in court, review witness, select the jury, discuss a settlement and set a trial date if necessary.

Prison: A state-operated correctional facility where serious criminals go for years to serve out their sentence; typically with felonies.

Probable Cause: Sufficient evidence to detain the person who was arrested.

Probation: An alternative sentencing option to imprisonment where the defendant is released under the stipulation they agree to court-mandated supervision (via a probation officer) and to obey certain conditions. Violation of probation conditions can result in incarceration.

Prosecutor / Prosecution: The individual or side who is responsible for making a case against the defendant on behalf of the state or federal government.

Prostitution: The criminal act of engaging in sex or sexual activity for money.

Rape: Illegal sexual activity with another person without their consent and usually by force. Common types of rape include date rape, statutory rape and marital rape.

Record: A written record taken down during the course of a case, including all statements, evidence, pleadings, exhibits and verdicts.

Reduction: A defense strategy where a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a lesser charge.

Self-incrimination: The act of making incriminating statements against yourself. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Miranda Warning helps protect defendants against self-incrimination when talking with law enforcement or prosecutors.

Sentence: The punishment imposed by a court for a defendant who has been convicted of a crime.

Sex Offense: A general term for a criminal act or behavior that breaks federal or state sex crime law. Sex offenses can include online solicitation of a child, rape, prostitution, possession or distribution of child pornography and indecent contact/exposure. If convicted, defendants are usually forced to register as a sex offender.

Standard of Proof: The degree of proof required to win a case; also known as “burden of proof. In criminal cases, the burden lies with the prosecution to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

State Jail: A transitional correctional facility where convicted defendants are held between jail and prison.

Statute of Limitations: The deadline for a criminal prosecution to be filed. This time limit can vary depending on the type of crime and specific facts regarding the case.

Subpoena: A court-issued mandate forcing a witness to appear in court and give testimony.

Suppress: To force inadmissible evidence out of a trial.

Tax Evasion: Intentionally attempting to bypass federal or state tax law by unlawfully reducing one’s tax liability.

Testimony: Verbal evidence given by a witness under oath during a trial. False testimony is considered perjury.

Trial: The courtroom proceeding where a judge presides over a case, usually with a six or twelve-person jury, to determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented and the application of the law.

Verdict: The final decision in a criminal case made by a trial judge or jury.

Voir Dire: French for “to see, to speak.” Voir Dire is the process by which a jury is selected by judges and lawyers based on the jurors prior knowledge of the case and qualifications.

Warrant: Court authorization for law enforcement to make an arrest or conduct a search. A bench warrant, also known as a “capias,” is when an arrest order is issued by a judge.

White Collar Crime: A general term for financially-driven nonviolent criminal activity by a business and/or government agent. Examples of white-collar crimes include bribery, money laundering, embezzlement, healthcare fraud and tax evasion.

Witness: A person who personally sees or hears a crime and testifies before a court or jury. Witnesses can be called by either side and cross-examined.

Writ: A written judicial order ordering someone to do something, or cease to do something.

For a list of other common legal terms, visit the official U.S. Courts website.

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