Common Criminal Defense Terms
Criminal Law – A
A legal judgment that a defendant is not guilty of the crime for which they were charged.
Learn More: If a judge or jury acquits a defendant, they are considered not guilty. They are immediately released from custody, and their criminal record will reflect that they were not convicted.
A written statement made under oath, usually for use as evidence in court.
Evidence that shows the defendant was not at the scene of the crime when it occurred.
Learn More: If a witness or other evidence indicates the defendant was somewhere else when the crime was committed, that information is called an “alibi.”
A request to a higher court to review a lower court’s decision.
Learn More: If you lose your court case and are found guilty of a crime in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, you can appeal that decision to the Tenth District Court of Appeals. Your case will be heard by a three-judge panel, which will decide if your case needs to be returned to the lower court for additional consideration of specific issues, overturned (finding that the lower court’s decision was wrong), or affirmed (finding that the lower court’s decision was correct).
Intentionally setting fire to buildings, wild areas, vehicles, or other property.
The initial court appearance where the defendant is formally charged and enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.
Learn More: You will be informed of your charges when you appear before the judge for the arraignment. The judge will tell you about your rights, which include your right to an attorney. You will enter a guilty, not guilty, or no-contest plea. If you plead guilty, the judge may schedule a sentencing hearing. The judge will schedule a trial date if you plead not guilty or no contest. The judge may also set bail at the arraignment.
An intentional act that causes another person to fear being physically harmed.
Learn More: Many people confuse assault and battery, and in Ohio, the definitions are similar. In Ohio criminal law, assault is defined as causing or attempting to cause harm to another person. Battery is intentionally or negligently causing offensive bodily contact (see more under “battery” for an explanation of “bodily contact”). Assault does not require any actual contact at all, but it could.
Criminal Law – B
The money or property provided as security to ensure a defendant’s appearance in court.
Learn More: The amount of bail is typically set depending on several factors, including the seriousness of the crime, the defendant’s flight risk, the defendant’s ties to the community, and criminal history. In some cases, defendants may be released on their own recognizance so they do not have to pay bail. This is more common if there is little risk that the defendant will flee before the next court date.
Physically striking or making harmful contact with another person intentionally.
Learn More: Assault and battery are similar. However, the definition of battery includes intentionally or negligently causing offensive bodily contact. “Offensive bodily contact” does not necessarily have to harm the other person. The simple act of spitting on another person could be considered battery in Ohio.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The standard of proof in criminal cases indicates no reasonable alternative to the belief that the defendant committed the crime.
Learn More: If a significant amount of evidence points to the defendant’s guilt so that no reasonable person could find them not guilty, then they may be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, if the evidence is questionable or lacks validity, there is enough doubt that the defendant should not be found guilty.
Unlawfully entering a building or other premises with the intent to commit theft, assault, or another felony.
Criminal Law – C
A crime punishable by death.
Learn More: Aggravated murder is a capital offense in Ohio. Other specific circumstances involving murder may also result in the death sentence, including a murder that involved the assassination of a public official, the victim was a police officer, the defendant was a prisoner in a detention facility, or the defendant was attempting to escape detection or punishment for another offense.
The formal accusation made by the prosecution stating that a specific individual has committed a specific crime.
Learn More: You will be informed of your formal charges when you are arraigned at your first court hearing. Before that, any charges against you are pending.
Physically, emotionally, or sexually harming a minor.
Evidence that implies the defendant committed the crime but does not directly link them to it.
Learn More: Circumstantial evidence does not directly prove a fact in issues but instead provides the basis for inferring that the fact is true. It is indirect evidence. For example, if a witness says they saw the defendant running from the scene of the crime with a gun in their hand, that is circumstantial evidence. The jury can infer that the defendant committed the crime, but it does not directly prove it.
An agreement between two or more individuals to commit an unlawful act.
Contempt of Court
An act of disobedience or disrespect towards the court or its procedures, which can result in a fine or imprisonment.
Learn More: A judge may order a defendant to participate in an alcohol treatment program. If the defendant fails to comply with that order, they would be in contempt of court. They may be ordered to spend time in jail because of that contempt.
A legal judgment that a defendant is guilty of a crime.
Learn More: A judge or jury may make a conviction when they find a defendant guilty of a crime. However, a defendant may also plead guilty, and they will be convicted of the crime as well.
A Latin phrase that describes the principle that a crime must be proven to have occurred before someone can be convicted of committing that crime.
The questioning of a witness by the opposing party during a trial.
Learn More: Your attorney can confront witnesses supporting the prosecutor’s accusations. When they question the witnesses for the state, it is called “cross-examination.”
Criminal activity involving computers or computer networks, such as hacking or phishing.
Criminal Law – D
The person accused of committing a crime.
The prosecutor may decide not to issue criminal charges or to suspend the criminal proceeding if there is an informal agreement with the defendant to meet certain conditions, such as counseling or treatment.
The process by which both sides in a case share evidence and information.
Learn More: The discovery process can take significant time in a criminal case. It typically involves both sides exchanging videos, pictures, witness information, and more that will be used to prove their case. When you review “discovery,” you can determine how strong of a case each side has.
A judge’s decision to end a case for legal or procedural reasons, often before trial.
Learn More: A judge may dismiss a case if, on the legal facts alone, there is not enough evidence to support the charges against the defendant. This often happens when the state or prosecutor makes serious mistakes in a case.
Physical or emotional abuse directed at a partner, spouse, or family member.
Being tried twice for the same crime, which is prohibited under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Holding or controlling a controlled substance without a legal right to do so.
The legal requirement that state and federal governments must respect all legal rights owed to a person, as outlined in the Constitution.
Learn More: The government must act fairly and within the law. This is a fundamental right protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Thus, if the government arrests you (denying you of your liberty), sentences you to death (denying you of your life), or confiscates your property (denying you of your property), it must do so with proper processes established by the law.
Driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI); operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs.
Learn More: There are three main elements of a DUI: (1) the defendant must have been in control of the motor vehicle; (2) the defendant must have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol; and (3) the drugs or alcohol must have impaired the defendant’s ability to drive safely. The prosecution must prove each of these beyond a reasonable doubt.
Criminal Law -E
Misappropriating funds that have been entrusted to you but belong to someone else.
An illegal act by law enforcement to trick or coerce a person into committing a crime.
Learn More: Entrapment is often used as a defense when the government presents a situation to the defendant, and the defendant committed an illegal act they would not have committed if they had not been presented with that situation.
Evidence that may exonerate the defendant.
Learn More: Exculpatory evidence proves a defendant’s innocence, while inculpatory evidence proves guilt. Some examples of exculpatory evidence include an alibi, eyewitness testimony, DNA evidence, fingerprint evidence, and character evidence.
Physical or documentary evidence used in court.
Criminal Law – F
A serious crime usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.
Learn More: A minor traffic violation may be a misdemeanor, whereas a murder is a type of felony. Felonies are much more serious than misdemeanors, and they can result in significant fines and time in prison.
Falsifying documents or signatures for the purpose of deception.
Deceptive action for personal gain or to cause loss to the victim, including activities like mail fraud, wire fraud, and credit card fraud.
Criminal Law – H
A Latin phrase describing the legal principle that protects an individual from unlawful detention.
Learn More: Habeas corpus literally means “show me the body.” A writ of habeas corpus requires an arrested person to be brought before the court, and the state must show grounds for their detention.
A crime committed against individuals due to race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Statements made outside of court that are offered as evidence within court; usually not admissible.
Learn More: While hearsay is not admitted to court, there are exceptions, including excited utterances, dying declarations, business records, public records, and admissions of party opponents. An example of hearsay may occur when a friend tells a witness that the defendant committed the crime. This would not be admissible in court. However, if the witness testified that the defendant confessed to the crime, that would be an exception.
The act of killing another human being, either intentionally (murder) or unintentionally but recklessly (manslaughter).
Criminal Law – I
Illegally acquiring and using someone else’s personal information for financial gain.
A formal accusation initiating a criminal case, typically for felonies.
Learn More: An indictment is issued by a grand jury, which is a group of citizens who are randomly selected to investigate crimes and decide whether to charge people with those crimes. If a grand jury finds probable cause to believe a defendant committed a crime, they will issue an indictment. From there, the prosecutor will take the case to trial, where the standard of proof rises to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement.
A minor violation, often punishable by a fine.
Learn More: Minor traffic violations are often classified as infractions in Ohio.
Criminal Law – J
The process by which a jury chooses to acquit a defendant, regardless of evidence, often due to disagreement with the law.
Criminal Law – K
Unlawfully seizing and detaining a person against their will.
Criminal Law – M
A Latin phrase indicating the state of mind or intent required to prove criminal liability.
Learn More: A conviction requires proof of mens rea (criminal mental state) and actus reus (criminal act). The mental state necessary depends on the specific crime. In most cases, it is intent. That means that a criminal must intend to commit the act. It cannot be an accident. In some crimes, negligence or recklessness (rather than intentional behavior) is enough.
A less serious crime, usually punishable by a fine or less than one year in jail.
Learn More:Although misdemeanors, such as petty theft, are less serious than felonies, they can still result in a permanent criminal record, and a conviction should be avoided when possible.
The illegal process of making illicit gains appear legitimate.
A formal request for a judge to make a ruling or take other action.
Learn More: Many types of motions can be submitted before, during, or after a trial. Some common pre-trial motions include a Motion to Dismiss or a Motion to Suppress Evidence.
Criminal Law – N
A plea, also called “no contest,” where the defendant neither admits nor denies guilt but accepts punishment as though guilty.
Criminal Law – O
Obstruction of Justice
Hindering the legal process, such as lying to investigators or hiding evidence.
Learn More: You may get an obstruction of justice charge if you try to intimidate a witness into not testifying or speaking with authorities about your case.
Criminal Law – P
Making false statements under oath during a legal proceeding.
Learn More: When you testify at trial or during a deposition, you will swear, under oath, that you will tell the truth. If you lie, then your statements are considered perjury. You can get fines or additional consequences for perjuring yourself. It also makes you look less trustworthy to the court and jury.
A negotiated agreement between the defendant and prosecution in which the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Pretrial Hearing or Conference
A meeting between the defendant’s attorney and prosecutor before the trial date to discuss trial issues and possible case resolutions. Pleas are often discussed at the pretrial hearing.
A reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime, often necessary for search warrants or arrests.
Learn More: Probable cause is a lower legal standard than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for a conviction at trial. Probable cause is necessary for many law enforcement actions, including arresting, searching, and obtaining a warrant. It can be established through eyewitness testimony, informant tips, physical evidence, or the officer’s observation.
A sentence that allows a person to live in the community under specified conditions instead of serving time in prison.
Failure to follow the terms and conditions outlined in a probation agreement.
Learn More: A probation violation typically results in incarceration for the remainder of your sentence. If you commit another crime while on probation, the consequences may be even greater.
The government attorney who represents the state in criminal cases.
A state-funded lawyer assigned to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney.
Learn More: Public defenders have the same education and law license as private attorneys. However, they often have hefty caseloads and don’t dedicate as much time to each case. This is why it is often beneficial to hire a private attorney instead of relying on a busy public defender.
Criminal Law – R
A standard used in some legal contexts, less stringent than probable cause, must be based on specific and articulable facts.
Learn More: Reasonable suspicion requires more than a “hunch.” It must be based on specific and articulable facts that point to a specific individual or factual scenario when taken together with rational inferences from those facts. For example, suppose a police officer sees someone running away from a crime scene. In that case, the officer may have reasonable suspicion to stop them and ask them questions since they are acting curiously.
Money paid by the defendant to the victim of a crime for property loss or injuries.
Learn More: Restitution is set by the court to repay the victim for their losses. It does not include “pain and suffering” awards.
Evidence presented to counter or disprove facts stated by the opposing party.
Learn More: If the prosecutor has DNA evidence against you, your attorney can present evidence in rebuttal. That may include challenges to the testing process or facility in which the DNA was tested. The goal is to prove the DNA evidence is not yours or unrelated to the crime.
Taking property from a person through force or intimidation.
Criminal Law – S
A legal document authorizing law enforcement to search a specified area for evidence of a crime.
Learn More: A search warrant authorizes law enforcement to search a person, place, or thing. To get a search warrant, an officer must submit an affidavit with probable cause to a judge proving that a person, place, or thing needs to be searched. For example, a search warrant may allow a police investigator to search a house for drugs or a car for stolen property.
To isolate the jury or a witness from outside influences during a trial.
Learn More: Sequestering the jury or a witness keeps them from the public and media during the trial. This prevents them from being influenced by outside information and opinions. Jurors and witnesses are often influenced by media coverage, harassed or intimidated by the public, or exposed to new information that could influence their decisions.
The act of implicating oneself in a crime protected against by the Fifth Amendment in the U.S.
Learn More: You have a right to remain silent to protect yourself against self-incrimination. While you must identify yourself to the police, you are not required to answer their questions – nor should you until you consult with a criminal defense attorney.
Unwanted sexual contact or activity without the explicit consent of the victim.
Taking merchandise from a retail establishment without paying for it. This crime is often charged as petty theft.
Encouraging, requesting, or demanding someone to engage in criminal conduct, often relating to prostitution or illegal drugs.
Repeatedly following or harassing another person, causing them to fear for their safety.
Statute of Limitations
The time period within which legal action must be taken for a specific crime.
Learn More: The statute of limitation sets a deadline for prosecutors to file charges against a defendant. If charges are not filed within that time, they cannot be pursued. This prevents defendants from being prosecuted for crimes committed many years ago, where they would not have time to prepare a defense and gather evidence.
The criminal act of impeding the normal breathing or circulation of blood by applying pressure to the throat or neck or by covering the nose and mouth.
Learn More: Strangulation is a serious felony offense categorized depending on the severity of the injuries caused to the victim. However, it can be as simple as holding a hand over someone’s mouth to keep them from yelling or biting. Strangulation is extremely common in Ohio Domestic Violence cases.
A legal order requiring someone to attend a court proceeding or produce evidence.
Learn More: There are two types of subpoenas. A subpoena ad testificandum requires a person to appear in court and testify. A subpoena duces tecum requires a person to produce documents or other evidence in court. If a person fails to comply with a subpoena, they may be held in contempt of court, which means they may be fined or jailed.
Criminal Law – T
The formal statement made by a witness under oath in court.
Acts intended to intimidate or coerce a population, often involving violence or threats.
Unlawfully taking someone else’s property with the intent to deprive them of it permanently.
Entering someone else’s property without permission.
Criminal Law – V
Intentionally damaging or defacing property that belongs to someone else.
The location where the trial is to be held.
The process by which attorneys select, or perhaps reject, certain jurors to serve on a jury.
Learn More: Voir dire is a French phrase that means “to speak the truth.” It determines which jurors are suitable for service. The process is conducted by the attorneys, with the judge presiding. Attorneys ask personal questions about the jurors to assess their impartiality and whether they have any biases that could affect their ability to serve on the jury.
Criminal Law – W
Non-violent crimes committed by business or government professionals, often involving financial manipulation.
Learn More: White-collar crimes often involve money. Some examples include embezzlement, fraud, bribery, money laundering, and insider trading.
The interception of a telephone conversation or other communication, often as part of a criminal investigation.
A formal written order by a court requiring the performance of a specific act.
Learn More: Some common writs include habeas corpus, mandamus, prohibition, certiorari, subpoena, and warrant. These are essential tools for the courts to enforce their orders and ensure justice is served.
This glossary is designed to provide a foundational understanding of criminal defense terms, standard charges, and related terms but is not exhaustive. Always consult with a qualified criminal defense attorney for specific legal advice.