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Criminal Law Glossary

Arraignment — A proceeding during which a judge informs the accused of the criminal charges against him or her, asks the accused whether he or she has an attorney or wants a court-appointed attorney, asks how the accused will plead to the charges, determines whether to modify the initial amount of bail and sets a schedule for future court dates.

Bail — An amount of money that the accused must post so that he or she can get out of jail. If the accused shows up for future court dates, the bail money is returned. If, however, the accused doesn’t show up or flees, the court will keep the money and issue an arrest warrant.

Felony — Generally, a crime that is punishable by imprisonment of more than one year.

Grand Jury — The grand jury decides whether there is sufficient evidence to indict a suspect and continue the criminal proceedings against him or her. The grand jury does not decide guilt or innocence.

Indictment — The formal process of charging a person with a crime.

Misdemeanor — Generally, a crime for which the maximum possible punishment is incarceration for one year or less.

Miranda Rights — Refers to a suspect’s constitutional right to an attorney and right against self-incrimination. The name comes from the Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966). Police must inform suspects of these rights upon arrest or when they detain a suspect. If the police fail to do so, any information obtained from an investigation is inadmissible in court.

Parole — The supervised release of a prisoner from incarceration into the community before the end of his or her sentence.

Plea Bargain — A negotiated agreement between a criminal defendant and a prosecutor that resolves the criminal matter. The prosecutor may agree to reduce a charge, drop one of several charges or recommend a more lenient sentence in exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea, often to a lesser offense.

Probable Cause — Information enough so that there is a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. Police must have probable cause before arresting a suspect or performing a search. This is also the standard for obtaining a warrant.

Probation — A type of criminal punishment that allows a person to stay in the community (instead of going to jail) as long as he or she complies with certain conditions, such as regularly reporting to a probation officer, refraining from alcohol and drugs and not committing further crimes.

Prosecutor — The attorney who represents the federal, state or local government in a case against a criminal defendant. Also known as district attorney, county attorney, city attorney, United States attorney or state attorney.

Sentence — The punishment for a criminal conviction. The severity of the sentence generally depends on the nature of the crime for which a person is convicted. Sentences include: fines, community service, restitution, alcohol or drug rehab, probation, suspended sentence (only will be implemented if the individual fails to adhere to certain conditions) and incarceration.

Warrant — An order directing or allowing some action to be taken. Generally, a warrant is a document signed by a judge that allows the police to arrest a suspect; search a home, business or other location or seize property.

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