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Criminal Law Terminology – Glossary of Legal Terms in the US

Criminal Law Terminology – Glossary of Legal Terms in the US
Axelrod & Associates, P.A.

Being in court is always intimidating as a layperson, especially when hearing complicated legal jargon you’re not familiar with. Understanding the legal terms you’ll hear throughout the legal process will give you some peace of mind and leave you feeling like you’re informed on what is happening in your case. Your South Carolina criminal lawyer can help you understand these terms, but we’ve prepared a glossary of some of the most important to know.

Of course, a simple dictionary is no replacement for a Myrtle Beach, SC, criminal defense attorney, but this guide will at least give you an idea of what law enforcement or a judge is talking about.

What Are Some of the Common Terms in the Criminal Justice System?

  • Acquittal: Acquittal covers when a jury finds you not guilty of the crime. This can be because the jury believes you did not commit the crime or because they were unsatisfied by a lack of evidence on the part of the prosecution.
  • Assault: Assault covers any attempt someone makes to bring harm to another individual. You don’t have to actually harm the other person for an assault charge, as the state can charge you with assault for making a threat and attempting to act on it. Even if you miss when you attack, you are still committing assault.
  • Battery: Battery includes any time you make unwanted physical contact with another person with the intent to harm them. Battery is the physical part of the assault.
  • Cross-examination: Lawyers may call their own witnesses up to testify in court. After the lawyer finishes asking their questions, the judge will allow the opposing party to conduct a cross-examination. The other lawyer will get to ask their questions, which may be related to the previous testimony or go in a different direction.
  • Defendant: This is the person who is facing charges in a criminal case. Cases may have one or multiple defendants.
  • Felony: Of the two classifications in South Carolina, a felony carries the harsher penalties. Felonies are for more severe crimes and come with the risk of time in a state correctional facility rather than a county jail. You will also face the loss of voting and gun ownership privileges upon conviction for a felony.
  • Guilty: Guilt is when the jury believes you committed a crime. You can also enter into a guilty plea to forgo a trial.
  • Homicide: Homicide is the unlawful taking of life. This umbrella covers both manslaughter and murder. Manslaughter is a spur-of-the-moment killing, often without any intention to kill. Murder requires some intent to kill.
  • Miranda Rights: When arrested, the police will read you your Miranda Rights. These rights say you have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, and the state will provide an attorney to you if you cannot afford a private one. If law enforcement fails to read you your rights during an arrest, you may have grounds for the judge to suppress any confession.
  • Misdemeanor: The less-serious criminal classification, misdemeanors are for more minor crimes such as theft or reckless driving. Misdemeanors still carry the risk of jail time, though you’ll spend that in a county jail rather than a state facility. Misdemeanors may also carry fines and probation.
  • Mistrial: Mistrials happen when something improper happens, and the case must begin anew. A hung jury or an improper procedure by the prosecutor can lead to a mistrial.
  • Plea Deal: Defendants may plead guilty to the crime in exchange for a lighter sentence from the prosecutor.
  • Probable Cause: Police need probable cause to interview a suspect, conduct a search, or make an arrest. Probable cause is anything that gives police a suspicion that a crime is happening or a person is involved in criminal activity.
  • Prosecutor: The lawyer who represents the state in a trial and attempts to convict the defendant.
  • Suppression: A defense attorney may file for suppression of evidence if the prosecutor’s side obtained it illegally.
  • Witness: Someone who can provide evidence or context during a trial and speaks under oath.


Q: What Are Some of the Most Important Legal Terms to Know?

A: Other than the more obvious ones, you should know about plea bargains and probable cause. In a plea bargain, the prosecutor will let you plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for giving up your right to a trial. Police need probable cause to make an arrest or search an area. If they don’t have a reason to believe crime is happening, any evidence they obtain is tainted.

Q: What Is the Word for When the State Formally Charges Me With a Crime?

A: Indictment is the formal word for when the court charges you with a crime. To be indicted, the state must have a grand jury trial where lawyers produce initial facts and evidence about the case. The grand jury will then determine if there is enough evidence to file an indictment or if they believe the state does not have a solid case.

Q: Can I Ask My Lawyer to Help Me Understand the Law Better?

A: After you take on the services of an attorney, you can use them as a bit of a legal glossary. They will know any terms you might need to know while dealing with the charge and upcoming trial. If the police used any terms you weren’t familiar with or the judge said something that confused you, you will want to speak with your attorney to clear up any miscommunications.

Q: What Kind of Words Should I Use When Speaking with the Judge?

A: Judges will expect you to maintain a sense of decorum, but they won’t be too harsh on a defendant who misuses a legal term here and there. You should always refer to the judge as “Your Honor” while speaking with them. Also, keep in mind you’ll have to plead guilty or not guilty to the crime.

Axelrod & Associates: Criminal Defense Attorneys You Can Trust

While this glossary is a useful tool to check when you’re confused, it’s no substitute for legal advice from a Myrtle Beach criminal defense attorney. If you have a criminal case you need help with, we can assist you.

At Axelrod & Associates, we have plenty of experience with criminal cases and can get you the help you need. Contact us today to see how we can represent you.

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