Going to Court? Charged with a Crime? – The 7 Criminal Law Terms You Need to Know

If you have been charged with a crime and find a fast-approaching court date, there will undoubtedly be a lot going through your head. One of those thoughts might be this: what are they talking about?

Even the most basic terms can throw a smart, informed person for a loop. The truth is, the law is long, tedious, and complex; its writers constructed it in a way that accounts for the meanings and proceedings of all concepts and then some.

We have talked about this before in our blog, but TV and movies are not the best sources for legal knowledge. They are highly fictionalized and usually do not provide the best context for terms or concepts they use that make their script sound more professional. So instead of relying on word-of-mouth or entertainment, read on to learn seven common and crucial terms to know when entering a courtroom. 

1. Constitutional Rights

Now, of course, you probably have a vague idea of what a constitutional right is—free speech, freedom of press and religion, right to bear arms, and so on. But, how does the constitution apply to the criminal justice process?

Look no further than Amendments Four, Five, Six, and Eight.

The Fourth Amendment establishes a person and their property’s protection from “unreasonable search and seizures,” or, in other words, violations of one’s right to privacy. You might have also heard the word warrant used in court or on the news before; the Fourth Amendment accounts for these, too. Courts issue warrants to law enforcement officials to prevent unlawful searches after showing proof and cause that the search will produce evidence related to a crime. 


You might be more familiar with the Fifth and Sixth Amendments from TV, incidentally enough. These cover your Miranda rights: the right to remain silent (in Constitution language, not being forced “to be a witness against” yourself), a fair trial, and an attorney (the Sixth Amendment covers this more explicitly). They also prohibit double jeopardy—or multiple prosecutions for the same offense—and guarantee the government can’t seize your property without paying you for it.

Finally, the Eighth Amendment protects against judges granting excessive bail and fines—along with “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Know that going into a trial, you have rights and should use them; experienced attorneys know how your rights work in relation to the law.

2. Bail

As mentioned above, bail is money paid by the defendant so they can be released from jail prior to their court date. Leaving jail after paying bail comes with the defendant’s understanding they must return to court for their specified date; if they don’t return, the defendant can be charged with bail jumping. Typically, there are additional conditions to release, as well. 

3. Plea

A plea is your way of claiming a level of responsibility for a charge. There are three ways to plea: not guilty, guilty, or no contest.

Many are not aware of the differences between the latter two pleas. With a guilty plea, you admit guilt to the facts of the case and any legal consequences. A no contest plea, on the other hand, means you do not admit guilt, but you do admit the truth of the case’s facts.

You might also know the term plea bargain; with these, a defendant can arrange a deal with the prosecutor for fewer charges in exchange for a guilty plea. Surprisingly, over 90 percent of criminal cases end in plea bargains. 

4. Misdemeanors and Felonies

A few things determine the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony: the crime itself, its legal consequences, and short-versus-long term consequences.

Misdemeanors include less severe crimes, such as traffic offenses, DUI/DWI-related charges, or theft under $1,000, to name a few. Though “less severe” than felony crimes, take these seriously; select misdemeanors can carry up to 10 years in prison and heavy fines. Keep in mind; criminal records follow you no matter the crime—misdemeanors, no less.

Felonies include more severe crimes, such as murder, assault, white-collar crimes (securities fraud, wire fraud), or theft over $1,000. Unlike misdemeanors, a felony charge takes away your civil liberties and can limit your ability to get a job, buying a house, and obtain driving privileges. 

5. Sentence

This one is pretty straightforward: a judge’s punishment for a defendant convicted of a crime. Be aware of three types of sentencing when it comes to how one might serve their sentence:

  • Concurrent Sentence: sentences for multiple crimes that run together, served at the same time.
  • Consecutive Sentence: subsequent sentences served after one another.
  • Deferred Sentence: Postponement of a sentence to start in the future. 

6. Probation

Probation outlines conditions for a convicted defendant’s freedom in the community. A judge may sentence probation as an alternative to jail time. With probation, there could come living arrangements, job search, and drug test requirements, along with contact with court officers to show their adherence to the posed conditions. If shown to not be in adherence to said conditions, the court may require the defendant to serve jail instead of continuing the probation. 

7. Parole

Parole is a privilege granted after a convicted person serves a portion of their prison sentence. Similar to probation, upon release, the justice system outlines its own conditions for the parolee—many of these not unlike those listed above.

However, parole is not allowed for everyone. Certain felonies have a maximum sentence without the possibility of parole. Even so, parole boards subject the records of those who are eligible to strict scrutiny and consider every aspect of the crime committed, their lives outside of prison, and the potential to re-establish themselves upon release.

Like probation, there are significant consequences to violating parole—including more jail time.

Knowing the basis of a legal term is enough to understand the beginning legal proceedings somewhat; a compassionate lawyer, though, is your best bet for being in the loop with your criminal case. If you are in a bind and need to talk with someone who cares, contact our offices for a free initial consultation. The law is hard. Go with someone who both understands it and can give you the legal help you deserve.

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