Criminal Law Glossary

Actus Reus and Mens Rae – Actus reus translates to “guilty act” and mens rae translates to “guilty mind.” To prove that a defendant is guilty of a criminal act, a lawyer must prove both that a criminal act was committed, and that it was committed intentionally.

Appeal – A defendant who has been found guilty of a crime may “appeal” his or her case, requesting that a higher court hear it. The appeals process may take a case from a local district court, to the Supreme Court of America.

Arraignment – The procedure in which an accused person is brought before the court to answer charges. The accused may admit guilt or plea “not guilty.” If the accused pleas “not guilty,” a date for trial will be arranged.

Bail – By posting bail an accused person (or a relative, spouse, associate, or friend of an accused person) secures his or her release from jail while awaiting trial. Bail money is held to guarantee that the accused party will appear before trial. Bail money is returned after the trial is complete, minus any applicable administrative fees.

Capital Punishment – Capital punishment, or “the death penalty,” may be used as a punishment for persons who have committed capital offenses such as first-degree murder and treason. In the United States the death penalty is employed by electrocution, lethal injection, gas poisoning, hanging, or firing squad.

Civil Law – Civil law differs from criminal law in that:

  • Accusations are brought forward by victims instead of the state or federal government.
  • Guilt is punishable by fines and/or loss of property or freedom instead of imprisonment.
  • The issues it handles are non-criminal in nature.

Concurrent Jurisdiction – Some juvenile crime cases may fall under the jurisdiction of both the juvenile court system and the criminal court system. In such cases the prosecutor is allowed to choose where the case will be tried.

Crime – If a person fails to act in accordance with the law, he or she has committed a crime. State and federal laws determine what constitutes a crime. Minor offenses are referred to as misdemeanors and major offenses are referred to as felonies.

Criminal Law – Criminal law is concerned with cases in which a crime has been committed. Criminal cases are brought to trial by the state or the federal government, and criminal offenses may be punished by fines and/or imprisonment. Crimes are specified as misdemeanors or felonies.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) – Driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol is considered a criminal act in the United States. A person found guilty of driving under the influence stands to lose his or her license, be fined, and face imprisonment. Consequences are normally more serious for repeat offenders.

Embezzlement – A category of white-collar crime, embezzlement deals with the misappropriation of company or government funds or property by an employee or civil servant who had been entrusted with them.

Extortion – A criminal offense, extortion occurs when one party blackmails another or takes property or money through threats or intimidation.

Federal Court – Federal courts try both civil and criminal cases. It is the duty of federal judges to ensure that the rights provided to citizens by the U.S. Constitution and federal laws are protected.

Felony – A felony or “high crime” is a crime that may be punished by a year or more of imprisonment in a state or federal prison. Examples of felonies include murder, kidnapping, rape, and burglary.

Fraud – A defining aspect of fraud is breach of trust. Fraud is committed when one party deceives or misleads another, and through that deception acquires money or property, or abuses the victim's rights. Fraud may go undetected for a period of time as the victim usually relies on the perpetrating party for information. Subcategories of fraud include securities fraud, tax fraud, Internet fraud, identity fraud, and health fraud.

Juvenile Delinquency - Criminal acts committed by persons under the age of 18 are referred to as acts of juvenile delinquency. Jurisdiction over most juvenile delinquency cases is held by the juvenile justice system, which aims to rehabilitate rather than punish offending youth.

Larceny – A form of theft, larceny occurs when one party intentionally takes money or property from another. Grand larceny (usually defined as a theft of property over $500) is considered a felony, while petty larceny (a theft of property worth less than $500) is considered a misdemeanor.

Misdemeanor – A crime punishable by less than a year of imprisonment in a county jail and/or a fine is considered a misdemeanor. Examples of misdemeanors include shoplifting, simple assault, disturbing the peace, and driving under the influence (provided no one is injured).

Model Penal Code – In an effort to bring greater uniformity to the state laws in practice across the United States, the Model Penal Code was created. The code proffers certain legal standards and reforms to the states, but is not law in itself.

Parens Patriae – The juvenile justice system of America was formed under the idea of "parens patriae," or "state as parent." The state is deemed to have a responsibility to care for youths who have begun dangerous or criminal life patterns. Within this parental role the state has a responsibility to do what it can to rehabilitate youth in its care.

Perjury – "Lying under oath," or "perjury" is a criminal offense. A person is legally required to truthfully answer questions, or abstain from answering at all, if he or she has sworn before a court clerk, notary public, or other official to tell the truth. Perjury interferes with a juror, judge, or official's ability to accurately understand the information being presented.

Price Fixing – When companies conspire to set prices and thus control or interfere with free market competition, they have violated antitrust laws. Price fixing is considered a criminal offense.

Qui Tam – Through qui tam provisions in the Federal Civil False Claims Act, citizens can initiate lawsuits against businesses or agents who have dealt fraudulently with the U.S. government. Individuals who file qui tam lawsuits are referred to as whistleblowers.

Reasonable Doubt – In order to convict a defendant of a criminal offense, a juror or judge must believe “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. If a juror or judge finds the evidence against the defendant inconclusive, he or she has a responsibility to find the defendant "not guilty."

Securities Fraud – A stockbroker, financial advisor, corporation, or investor may commit securities fraud by:

  • Deliberately misrepresenting the worth of a company or the value of its stock.
  • Illegally trading within an investment account.
  • Failing to keep accurate books.
  • Making deals or trades based on inside information.

State Court – Within the U.S. judicial system, each state is given the right to try defendants for violations of state laws. The bulk of civil and criminal cases tried in the U.S. each year are heard in state courts.

Waiver and Transfer – An intake officer or prosecutor may, through a petition waiver, request that a juvenile delinquency case be heard in criminal court instead of juvenile court. If the petition is approved, the juvenile court will waive its jurisdiction and the case will be transferred to a criminal court. Reverse waivers, in contrast, transfer youth being tried in criminal court back to juvenile court.

White Collar Crime – Examples of white-collar crime include embezzlement, securities fraud, extortion, price fixing, and bribery. White-collar crimes may be tried in state or federal courts.

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