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LEGAL TERMS

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.

JURY NULLIFICATION

A decision by the jury to acquit a defendant who has violated a law that the jury believes is unjust or wrong. Jury nullification has always been an option for ... (more...)
A decision by the jury to acquit a defendant who has violated a law that the jury believes is unjust or wrong. Jury nullification has always been an option for juries in England and the United States, although judges will prevent a defense lawyer from urging the jury to acquit on this basis. Nullification was evident during the Vietnam war (when selective service protesters were acquitted by juries opposed to the war) and currently appears in criminal cases when the jury disagrees with the punishment--for example, in 'three strikes' cases when the jury realizes that conviction of a relatively minor offense will result in lifetime imprisonment.

ACTUS REUS

Latin for a 'guilty act.' The actus reus is the act which, in combination with a certain mental state, such as intent or recklessness, constitutes a crime. For ... (more...)
Latin for a 'guilty act.' The actus reus is the act which, in combination with a certain mental state, such as intent or recklessness, constitutes a crime. For example, the crime of theft requires physically taking something (the actus reus) coupled with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the object (the mental state, or mens rea).

PLEA BARGAIN

A negotiation between the defense and prosecution (and sometimes the judge) that settles a criminal case. The defendant typically pleads guilty to a lesser crim... (more...)
A negotiation between the defense and prosecution (and sometimes the judge) that settles a criminal case. The defendant typically pleads guilty to a lesser crime (or fewer charges) than originally charged, in exchange for a guaranteed sentence that is shorter than what the defendant could face if convicted at trial. The prosecution gets the certainty of a conviction and a known sentence; the defendant avoids the risk of a higher sentence; and the judge gets to move on to other cases.

AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES

Circumstances that increase the seriousness or outrageousness of a given crime, and that in turn increase the wrongdoer's penalty or punishment. For example, th... (more...)
Circumstances that increase the seriousness or outrageousness of a given crime, and that in turn increase the wrongdoer's penalty or punishment. For example, the crime of aggravated assault is a physical attack made worse because it is committed with a dangerous weapon, results in severe bodily injury or is made in conjunction with another serious crime. Aggravated assault is usually considered a felony, punishable by a prison sentence.

PUBLIC DEFENDER

A lawyer appointed by the court and paid by the county, state, or federal government to represent clients who are charged with violations of criminal law and ar... (more...)
A lawyer appointed by the court and paid by the county, state, or federal government to represent clients who are charged with violations of criminal law and are unable to pay for their own defense.

CHARGE

A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evid... (more...)
A formal accusation of criminal activity. The prosecuting attorney decides on the charges, after reviewing police reports, witness statements and any other evidence of wrongdoing. Formal charges are announced at an arrested person's arraignment.

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.

FELONY

A serious crime (contrasted with misdemeanors and infractions, less serious crimes), usually punishable by a prison term of more than one year or, in some cases... (more...)
A serious crime (contrasted with misdemeanors and infractions, less serious crimes), usually punishable by a prison term of more than one year or, in some cases, by death. For example, murder, extortion and kidnapping are felonies; a minor fist fight is usually charged as a misdemeanor, and a speeding ticket is generally an infraction.

SAMPLE LEGAL CASES

State v. Bieniek

... Bieniek. As a result of the collision, defendant faced criminal charges to which he ultimately pled guilty. ... sentence. In reviewing defendant's sentencing, resort must be had to traditional principles of appellate review of a criminal sentence. ...

State v. Nunez-Valdez

... Jeffrey S. Mandel, Morristown, argued the cause for amici curiae Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey and American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Pinilis Halpern and Edward L. Barocas, attorneys). ...

State v. Watkins

... Justice LONG delivered the opinion of the Court. The primary purpose of Pretrial Intervention (PTI) is to assist in the rehabilitation of worthy defendants, and, in the process, to spare them the rigors of the criminal justice system. ...