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LEGAL TERMS

PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE

One of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the prosecu... (more...)
One of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, holding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, each element of the crime charged.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. Reasonable doubt is sometimes explained as being convinced '... (more...)
The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. Reasonable doubt is sometimes explained as being convinced 'to a moral certainty.' The jury must be convinced that the defendant committed each element of the crime before returning a guilty verdict.

LARCENY

Another term for theft. Although the definition of this term differs from state to state, it typically means taking property belonging to another with the inten... (more...)
Another term for theft. Although the definition of this term differs from state to state, it typically means taking property belonging to another with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. If the taking is non forceful, it is larceny; if it is accompanied by force or fear directed against a person, it is robbery, a much more serious offense.

INTENTIONAL TORT

A deliberate act that causes harm to another, for which the victim may sue the wrongdoer for damages. Acts of domestic violence, such as assault and battery, ar... (more...)
A deliberate act that causes harm to another, for which the victim may sue the wrongdoer for damages. Acts of domestic violence, such as assault and battery, are intentional torts (as well as crimes).

HABEAS CORPUS

Latin for 'You have the body.' A prisoner files a petition for writ of habeas corpus in order to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continu... (more...)
Latin for 'You have the body.' A prisoner files a petition for writ of habeas corpus in order to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continue to hold him. If the judge orders a hearing after reading the writ, the prisoner gets to argue that his confinement is illegal. These writs are frequently filed by convicted prisoners who challenge their conviction on the grounds that the trial attorney failed to prepare the defense and was incompetent. Prisoners sentenced to death also file habeas petitions challenging the constitutionality of the state death penalty law. Habeas writs are different from and do not replace appeals, which are arguments for reversal of a conviction based on claims that the judge conducted the trial improperly. Often, convicted prisoners file both.

GRAND JURY

In criminal cases, a group that decides whether there is enough evidence to justify an indictment (formal charges) and a trial. A grand jury indictment is the f... (more...)
In criminal cases, a group that decides whether there is enough evidence to justify an indictment (formal charges) and a trial. A grand jury indictment is the first step, after arrest, in any formal prosecution of a felony.

JURY

Criminal Law Traffic TicketshomeGLOSSARY jury A group of people selected to apply the law, as stated by the judge, to the facts of a case and render a decision,... (more...)
Criminal Law Traffic TicketshomeGLOSSARY jury A group of people selected to apply the law, as stated by the judge, to the facts of a case and render a decision, called the verdict. Traditionally, an American jury was made up of 12 people who had to arrive at a unanimous decision. But today, in many states, juries in civil cases may be composed of as few as six members and non-unanimous verdicts may be permitted. (Most states still require 12-person, unanimous verdicts for criminal trials.) Tracing its history back over 1,000 years, the jury system was brought to England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The philosophy behind the jury system is that--especially in a criminal case--an accused's guilt or innocence should be judged by a group of people from her community ('a jury of her peers'). Recently, some courts have been experimenting with increasing the traditionally rather passive role of the jury by encouraging jurors to take notes and ask questions.

CONTINGENCY FEE

A method of paying a lawyer for legal representation by which, instead of an hourly or per job fee, the lawyer receives a percentage of the money her client obt... (more...)
A method of paying a lawyer for legal representation by which, instead of an hourly or per job fee, the lawyer receives a percentage of the money her client obtains after settling or winning the case. Often contingency fee agreements -- which are most commonly used in personal injury cases -- award the successful lawyer between 20% and 50% of the amount recovered. Lawyers representing defendants charged with crimes may not charge contingency fees. In most states, contingency fee agreements must be in writing.

INFRACTION

A minor violation of the law that is punishable only by a fine--for example, a traffic or parking ticket. Not all vehicle-related violations are infractions, ho... (more...)
A minor violation of the law that is punishable only by a fine--for example, a traffic or parking ticket. Not all vehicle-related violations are infractions, however--refusing to identify oneself when involved in an accident is a misdemeanor in some states.