Note: While some of the words below have additional meanings, the definitions given here relate only to criminal law.
arraignment: A short hearing at the beginning of a criminal case, at which the charges are announced and the defendant is asked to enter a plea (guilty, no contest, or not guilty).
bail: Money paid to the court, to get a defendant released from jail while a case is in progress. If the defendant shows up for court hearings and other legal commitments, the bail money is eventually given back. If the defendant runs away, the court gets to keep the bail money. When a defendant cannot pay the entire amount of bail, he may be able to get a loan through a bail bondsman, but the fee for this service is 10% of the total amount of bail—and that fee is not given back.
citation: An order to come to court, to face criminal charges. Traffic tickets are one type of citation.
deferred prosecution: A deal in which the prosecutor agrees to put a case “on hold” for a given period of time (usually six to eighteen months). As long as the defendant meets whatever conditions are imposed (similar to informal probation), the prosecutor will dismiss the case when the time is up. Deferred prosecution is only offered for minor crimes.
detention: A brief period in which a suspect is not free to go, while law enforcement officers investigate and decide whether they have enough proof to arrest the suspect. During detention, the suspect can be pat searched. (See reasonable suspicion; see also probable cause.)
diversion: A deal in which the defendant must meet certain conditions (similar to probation), after which the case is dismissed. Diversion is generally offered only once, the first time a defendant is brought to court on criminal charges, and only for minor crimes or drug cases. Some counties have special diversion programs for people arrested for prostitution, graffiti, or drugs.
entrapment: A defense to criminal charges, in which the defendant must prove both: (1) he had no tendency or desire to commit the crime, and (2) an undercover officer or informant intensely pressured him into doing it.
frisk: See pat search.
felony: A serious crime for which the punishment can include a year or more in prison.
green card: A permanent resident card, form I-551. A permanent resident is an immigrant who has permission to live and work in the United States permanently, but has not become a naturalized U.S. citizen and is therefore still subject to expulsion.
infraction: A very small crime, in most jurisdictions punishable only by a fine, rather than by jail time.
jail: A place where people are incarcerated before guilt or innocence has been determined (often because they can’t afford bail); and also where people serve short sentences, usually less than a year, as punishment for misdemeanors or for violations of probation or parole. (Compare with prison.)
Miranda rights: The warnings read to an arrested person whom the officers want to question: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you by the court.”
misdemeanor: A small crime, usually punishable by no more than a year in jail.
no contest: (In Latin, nolo contendere.) A plea to criminal charges, similar to pleading guilty. Pleading no contest, rather than guilty, may be of benefit if the defendant is sued in civil court, as well as being prosecuted criminally. However, a defendant who pleads no contest will be sentenced just as though he’d pleaded guilty.
parole: A form of court supervision, following release from state prison.
pat search: A search in which the officer runs his hands over the suspect’s body, to check for weapons. The suspect remains clothed during a pat search.
plea bargain: An agreement with the prosecutor in which the defendant pleads guilty or no contest (thereby giving up his right to a trial), in exchange for a lesser charge and/or a smaller punishment.
prison: A place where convicted felons are incarcerated, usually for sentences longer than a year. Same as a penitentiary. (Compare with jail.)
probable cause: Enough proof of criminal activity for a law enforcement officer to arrest a suspect or get a search warrant. For example, a cop would have probable cause to arrest a suspect for felony vandalism if:
probation: A type of court supervision instead of, or in addition to, a jail term. Formal probation conditions may include:
Informal probation conditions may include any of the above, other than reporting to a supervising officer.
promise to appear: An agreement to come to court, which an arrested person signs when being released from custody.
pro per: A defendant who’s representing herself in court. Also called pro se.
release on recognizance: When the judge releases an arrested person from jail and, instead of requiring bail, relies only on the defendant’s promise to come to court. Also called “ROR,” “OR,” or “PR.”
reasonable suspicion: Enough proof of criminal activity for a law enforcement officer to detain a suspect (see detention). Also called “articulable suspicion,” because the officer has to be able to articulate his reasons. For example, a cop would have reasonable suspicion if he said to himself:
subpoena: An order to appear as a witness, in court or before a grand jury. A subpoena duces tecum is an order to appear and bring particular items with you (such as documents or possessions).
waiver: Giving up a legal right.
wingspan: The searchable area around an arrested suspect—as large as the distance the suspect could leap to in any direction.