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LEGAL TERMS

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.

CRIMINAL LAW

Laws written by Congress and state legislators that make certain behavior illegal and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. By contrast, civil laws are not p... (more...)
Laws written by Congress and state legislators that make certain behavior illegal and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. By contrast, civil laws are not punishable by imprisonment. In order to be found guilty of a criminal law, the prosecution must show that the defendant intended to act as he did; in civil law, you may sometimes be responsible for your actions even though you did not intend the consequences. For example, civil law makes you financially responsible for a car accident you caused but didn't intend.

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.

CORPUS DELECTI

Latin for the 'body of the crime.' Used to describe physical evidence, such as the corpse of a murder victim or the charred frame of a torched building.

BAIL

The money paid to the court, usually at arraignment or shortly thereafter, to ensure that an arrested person who is released from jail will show up at all requi... (more...)
The money paid to the court, usually at arraignment or shortly thereafter, to ensure that an arrested person who is released from jail will show up at all required court appearances. The amount of bail is determined by the local bail schedule, which is based on the seriousness of the offense. The judge can increase the bail if the prosecutor convinces him that the defendant is likely to flee (for example, if he has failed to show up in court in the past), or he can decrease it if the defense attorney shows that the defendant is unlikely to run (for example, he has strong ties to the community by way of a steady job and a family).

HUNG JURY

A jury unable to come to a final decision, resulting in a mistrial. Judges do their best to avoid hung juries, typically sending juries back into deliberations ... (more...)
A jury unable to come to a final decision, resulting in a mistrial. Judges do their best to avoid hung juries, typically sending juries back into deliberations with an assurance (sometimes known as a 'dynamite charge') that they will be able to reach a decision if they try harder. If a mistrial is declared, the case is tried again unless the parties settle the case (in a civil case) or the prosecution dismisses the charges or offers a plea bargain (in a criminal case).

BURDEN OF PROOF

A party's job of convincing the decisionmaker in a trial that the party's version of the facts is true. In a civil trial, it means that the plaintiff must convi... (more...)
A party's job of convincing the decisionmaker in a trial that the party's version of the facts is true. In a civil trial, it means that the plaintiff must convince the judge or jury 'by a preponderance of the evidence' that the plaintiff's version is true -- that is, over 50% of the believable evidence is in the plaintiff's favor. In a criminal case, because a person's liberty is at stake, the government has a harder job, and must convince the judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

MENS REA

The mental component of criminal liability. To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act (the actus reus) in a certain mental s... (more...)
The mental component of criminal liability. To be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act (the actus reus) in a certain mental state (the mens rea). The mens rea of robbery, for example, is the intent to permanently deprive the owner of his property.

JUSTICE SYSTEM

A term lawyers use to describe the courts and other bureaucracies that handle American's criminal legal business, including offices of various state and federal... (more...)
A term lawyers use to describe the courts and other bureaucracies that handle American's criminal legal business, including offices of various state and federal prosecutors and public defenders. Many people caught up in this system refer to it by less flattering names.

SAMPLE LEGAL CASES

Bigon v. State

... In two separate indictments, [1] Appellant was indicted for the following offenses: two counts of felony murder, with the underlying felony of driving while intoxicated with a passenger under 15 years of age; two counts of intoxication manslaughter; and two counts of manslaughter ...

Littrell v. State

... In a single jury trial, the appellant was tried and convicted, and his punishment was assessed, for both the offense of felony murder and the offense of aggravated robbery. ... First we must determine whether the aggravated robbery is a lesser-included offense of the felony murder. ...

Kirkpatrick v. State

... After the state had presented its case-in-chief, appellant moved for an instructed verdict on the felony forgery count, asserting that the state had failed to prove felony forgery because it had not alleged or proven any of the elements necessary to make the forgery a felony rather ...