Definitions of Criminal Law Terms

Acquittal: An acquittal is essentially a not guilty verdict. When someone has been charged with a crime, and they have been found not guilty of all charges, one can say that they received an acquittal in the case.

Admissible: Admissible evidence is evidence that will be heard by a judge or jury at trial. It is evidence that passes through the evidence code in order to be presented by either attorney in the case. In contrast, inadmissible evidence is evidence that a judge has ruled cannot come in.

Appeal: An appeal is a process that happens after a criminal case. After a judgment is final and there are no more proceedings in a case, if someone does not like the result in a case, they can file for an appeal. This is basically asking the courts to re consider the issue, or to overturn a previous ruling in the case.


Assault is the apprehension of fear created by another without consent. Contrary to popular belief, an assault does not have to have any contact at all. If someone puts a gun to someone else’s face, and scares them and then walks away, it is likely they have committed an assault.

Aggravated Assault: An aggravated Assault is the same as the definition above except that there are aggravating circumstances. For example in an aggravated assault a gun or a knife may have been used.

Arson: Arson is the intentional burning of the property of another without their consent. In Criminal Law, arson is commonly done on someone’s house or on someone’s car.

Amber Alert: An Amber Alert is an alert that goes out via media sources to let the local area know that someone who is a youth could be in danger. This is a process that is picking up in multiple different parts of the world and it is a method to let everyone know to be aware of their surroundings.

Animal Cruelty: This is the when someone hurts or intentionally tries to hurt an animal. Animal cruelty can also be seen in terms of neglect of the animal or even leaving an animal in a hot car.

Alleged: Alleged means that a crime has been alleged against someone. It is not certain that someone committed a crime but someone else is saying that they did.

Assault with a deadly weapon: Assault with a deadly weapon means that someone has been assaulted, as defined above with a weapon that can cause death. What most people do not know is that this is actually pretty broad and could include a car, or a boat or a pair of scissors ,it is not a charge that is only reserved for a knife or a gun.

Attempt Crime: An attempt crime is one that someone tried to commit but they did not finish the entire crime. An attempt crime could any type of crime where certain elements of the crime are met but it has not fully been completed.

Attempted Murder: This is when someone tries to intentionally kill another person but the person does not die. Attempted murder could be any type of scenario where the intent to kill the person was present, but the other person lived.

Arraignment: An arraignment is the first court date in a criminal case. This is the time where the defendant decides to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges stated on the complaint.

Bail: Bail is basically collateral or insurance that the court takes in order to make sure someone shows up to court. On a smaller case bail can be from $1000 to $10,000. Bail bonds companies will usually charge you 10% of that amount and then put up the full amount for you with a promise that you will appear in court.


Battery is the harmful or offensive touching of another without consent.

Bribery: Bribery is giving money to another with the intent to get something in return. An example of bribery would be someone running for office giving a government official some money in order to ensure they are elected.


Burglary is the breaking or entering of a dwelling of another with the intent to permanently deprive them of goods.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard in the criminal courts. It is the highest standard in courts. In order for the prosecutor to prove someone is guilty, they must prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.Bench: The bench in criminal law is where the judge sits or referring to the position that the judge takes.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is the intentional harm to a child.

Child Neglect: Child neglect is when someone commits some act of negligence that hurts or harms a child. This can happen in a multitude of ways from not taking care for a child to having a child around dangerous things or people.

Chambers: The area referred to as “chambers” is the judge’s office

Child Porn: Child porn is obscene material of a child that is under the age of 18 years old. Possession of child porn is a crime. Distribution of child porn is also a crime.

Carjacking: Carjacking is the stealing of another’s car without consent. This also requires the use of force or threat while taking the person’s car.

Case Law: Case Law is past case decisions from a higher court that the lower court is forced to rely on. If a higher court made a decision in a case, then that becomes the law in all equal or lower courts.

Complaint: A complaint is the charging document in a criminal case. It lists the individuals biographical information, the charges against them and the maximum penalties they are facing.

Counterfeiting: Counterfeiting is the making of currency or government issued documents without the consent of the government.

Closing Argument: A closing argument is the last argument in a criminal case. Both the prosecution and the defense get to make a closing argument. The prosecution goes first, then the defense and then the prosecution has one more time to argue again. This is because the prosecution has the burden of proof in a criminal case.

District Attorney: The District Attorney is the prosecuting agency for that district. In Canada, this agency is called “The Crown”.

Defense Attorney:

A defense attorney is the attorney that represents the defendant. This can either be a public defender that is paid by the state, or by a private attorney of their choosing.

Denial of Speedy Trial Rights: Speedy trial rights mean that someone has a right to go to trial within a reasonable amount of time. In most areas this is 30-90 days. A denial of that speedy trial right would mean that the prosecutor has not brought the case to trial within that reasonable time frame.

Defendant: The defendant in a case is the one who is being charged with a crime.

Digital Penetration: This is a term that comes from rape or sexual assault cases. Digital penetration means the fingering of the vagina. Digital comes from the word digit, which means the fingers.

Discovery: The discovery in a case is the police reports and any other pictures or recordings that have to do with the case. The prosecution is required to give over all of the discovery to the defense.

Dismissal: A dismissal can be done either by a judge or by the prosecutor. A dismissal ends the case, resulting in no criminal record.

Docket: A docket is a summary of the events that occurred provided by the court to the defendant. This is used as their proof that they showed up to court and documents anything that occurred during that court date.

Drug Crimes: Drug crimes are most commonly seen as possession or transportation of any type of drug. In criminal law the most common are Marijuana, Heroin, Cocaine and Meth.

Driving under the influence: Driving under the influence means that you were driving after ingesting either alcohol or drugs. The alcohol or drugs must have also affected your driving.

Driving on a suspended license:

This is a criminal violation where someone’s license has been previously suspended but they continue to drive in violation of the law. They would have to be subsequently pulled over and the officer would discover that their license was previously suspended.

Domestic Violence:

Domestic Violence is the harmful or offensive touching of another without consent. The other person has to have some sort of domestic relationship with the defendant. This could be a family member or a current or former lover or spouse.

Evidence: Evidence is what is used by either side as proof. It could be in the form of witness testimony, expert testimony, photographs, recordings or anything else that a court would find relevant and admissible.


Extortion is when someone threatens another with fear or violence that they will expose something about them. In exchange for not exposing this information, they ask for money.


A crime where someone takes goods or money from their employer without their employers consent and with intent to permanently deprive their employer.


An expungement is the process of clearing someone’s criminal record once a conviction has already been in place. There are usually requirements before an expungemnet can be filed, like completing anything the court ordered and completing any term of probation.

Expert Witness: An expert witness is one that testifies at trial and gives their opinion about the facts of the case. An expert witness needs to be deemed an expert by the courts before testifying and they can be called by either the prosecution or the defense.

Evading a Police Officer:

Evading a police officer is when you refuse to pull over or run from the police. This could be in on foot, in a car or other means of transportation.

False Imprisonment:

The crime of false imprisonment is when someone wrongfully detains another person without their consent. This could be just for a moment or an extended period of time.

Felony: A felony is a classification of a crime. A felony is a more serious offense than a misdemeanor and it means that there is a possibility the defendant can go to prison.

Fraud: Fraud is the taking of property or goods by fraudulent means. It is when someone lies or misrepresents a situation in order to obtain a financial gain.

Fake Identification Crimes: Fake ID crimes are when someone presents false identification to another, pretending to be themselves. Examples of this could be to a police officer or to a bouncer at a bar.

Grand Jury: A grand jury is a formal proceeding in court where a jury is able to analyze the facts presented by the prosecution and decide whether are not charges are warranted for a certain office. This process does not include any defense attorneys or any defense argument.

Guilty Plea: A guilty plea is when a client agrees to the charges they are accused of or strikes a deal with the prosecutor. After a guilty plea, the judge is responsible for sentencing the defendant.

Hearsay: Hearsay is something that someone else said. The criminal courts only allows direct testimony to be admitted. Someone cannot testify about what someone else said. This reason is because a hearsay statement lacks credibility.

House Arrest: House arrest is a custodial sanction where someone is confined to their home. They can generally go to work while on house arrest and will have to wear an ankle bracelet at all times of the day.

Home Invasion:

A home invasion is when someone enters the home of another without their consent. While doing this, they have the intent to commit a crime inside the home.

Hung Jury: A hung jury is when a jury is deadlocked and cannot reach a decision. In Criminal Law a jury must be unanimous either for guilty or not guilty. If the jury cannot all reach the same decision then it is considered a hung jury.

Internet Stalking: Internet stalking or harassment is where someone repeatedly uses the Internet to stalk or harass another person. This cannot be a single occurrence but instead has to be repeated conduct.

Identification: Identification in a criminal case is usually one done on the defendant. It can be at the time of the incident or at a later court proceeding when the witness is on the stand. Eyewitness identifications are the most common but there has been a lot of recent literature that also say they are the most unreliable.

Impeachment: Impeachment is catching someone in a lie on the witness stand, and then using proof to show that they are lying.

Incarceration: This is the term used to describe when someone goes to prison.

Indictment: An indictment is a federal charging document. Much like the complaint in state court. In Federal court an indictment details the charges against the individual.

Insanity Defense: An insanity defense is used when a client is unable to understand that the act they have allegedly committed was wrong. It can be used at the initial plea stage or at trial. If someone is found guilty by reason of insanity that means that instead of going to jail, they will be sent to a mental institution.

Insurance Fraud:

Insurance fraud is the fraudulent taking of goods from an insurance company. This is generally when someone lies to an insurance company in order to illegally obtain goods or benefits.

Jury: A jury can be a jury of 6 or 12 people. It is most commonly a jury of 12. The jury is involved only at the trial stage and they are tasked with making the decision whether someone is guilty or not guilty. A jury is selected by random mailings to people who live in the area of the courthouse.

Judge: A judge is the one that makes the procedural decisions in the case. A judge is also in charge of sentencing if someone is convicted of a crime.


Kidnapping is the intentional taking and moving of another person without their consent. The elements of kidnapping can be met where the movement is ever so slight.

Litigation: Litigation is the term that is used to describe two sides arguing in a case.

Life Sentence: A life sentence generally means 25 years in prison.

Lewd Acts: Lewd acts are most commonly referred to as lewd acts on a child. This means any type of child molestation where the child is less than 14 years of age. Child Molestation would be defined as sexual stimulation of a minor with or without their consent.

Murder: Murder is the intentional killing of another without their consent.

Manslaughter: Manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another human being.

Manufacturing of Drugs: Much different than possession, manufacturing means that you are actually creating the drugs for sale. Common manufacturing labs in meth labs or marijuana oil labs.

Money Laundering: Money Laundering is the concealing of money that was part of criminal activity for another.

Misdemeanor: A misdemeanor is a crime that is in a lower classification than a felony. It is one where the defendant cannot go to prison and at the most can only have a maximum of 365 days in jail.

Mistrial: A mistrial is ordered most commonly as a result of a hung jury. This means that the case is dismissed without prejudice meaning that the prosecution could bring the case at a later time. A mistrial can also occur because there were problems procedurally throughout the case.

Military Diversion:

Military Diversion is a program where an active or retired military member can have their case postponed for a certain period of time. Within that amount of time, if they complete certain requirements by the court, then their case can be dismissed.

Not Guilty Plea: A not guilty plea is entered at the arraignment of the case. It is you saying that at this time you are denying the charges. This gives you some time to look at the legal aspects of the case and see what can be done with the case. A not guilty plea can always be changed to a guilty plea at a later time

Objection: An objection is a legal challenge to the other side. It is either the defense or the prosecution saying that the other side is trying to use evidence that is not compliant with the evidence code.

Opening Statement: An opening statement is one of the first things that are done in a criminal trial. It is an opportunity for both the prosecution and the defense to lay out what they believe the jury will hear throughout the case. An opening statement cannot be argumentative and it is not evidence.


Solicitation of prostitution is when someone offers sex to another person for money.


Pimping is the selling or arranging of sex for a prostitute. The pimp is the one that arranges the sexual acts.


Pandering is supporting a prostitute and making gains from their sex business.

Preliminary Hearing: A preliminary hearing is a felony court hearing where the prosecution has to present evidence to a judge to assure that the there is enough probable cause in the case to have it continue to the trial phase.

Perjury: Perjury is when one lies on the witness stand after they have been sworn to tell the truth. It can be charged as both a misdemeanor and a felony.

Penetration: Sexual penetration is most common in rape or sexual assault cases. Penetration means actually entering of the vagina.


Robbery is the intentional taking of goods by the use of force or threat, without consent.


Forced sexual intercourse with another person without their consent. Statutory rape is having sex with a minor with or without their consent.

Receiving Stolen Property: The receiving or property that is known to be stolen.

Registration as a sex offender: When someone is convicted of a sex crime they have to register as a sex offender for life. This requires contacting a local police station monthly or yearly and letting them know of every time you change your address.

Re-trial: If the court has declared a mistrial, the prosecution may bring the case again. The second or third trial would be considered the re-trial.

Sexual Assault: Unlawful sexual contact with another person without their consent.

Second Chair: On larger more serious cases, there are generally two attorneys that handle the case. The attorney that is not the main attorney would be considered the second chair.

Statutory Rape: Having sex with a minor. This is what is called a strict liability crime and it does not matter whether or not the minor consented.

Sex Offender: A sex offender is someone who has been convicted of a sex crime. They are required to register and maintain their sex offender status.

Self-Defense: This is a defense most commonly used in assault or battery cases. As long as the person believed they were in danger and/or in fear for their life they have a right to defend themselves.

Testimony: Testimony is the actual words presented at a trial by any of the witnesses in the case. It could also be the words presented to the jury by the defendant.

Theft Crimes:

The taking of the property of another with intent to permanently deprive and without the consent of the other person.

Temporary Restraining Order:

When someone wants protection from the other person they file what is called a restraining order. This generally ensures that the one party stays 100 yards of the other person and does not contact them for any reason.


Vandalism is the destroying of the property of another. The other person must not have agreed to it. Generally there is a threshold where if the amount of the vandalism is higher, the penalties will be more severe.

Veteran’s Court:

Veteran’s court is a pilot program in the courts where military veteran’s can enter into a program in order to attempt to have their cases dismissed.

Witness: A witness is someone who saw the events in the criminal case. They will be someone that is called to testify at a court hearing.

Ozols Law Firm

Alex Ozols is a criminal defense attorney in San Diego. He owns Ozols Law Firm that defends all types of crimes. Mr. Ozols is a legal scholar as well as a legal analyst for National News networks around the county.