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Criminal Law


A wrong against society proclaimed in a statute and, if committed, punishable by society through fines and/or imprisonment - and, in some cases, death.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The standard of proof used in criminal cases. If there is any reasonable doubt that a criminal defendant committed the crime with which she or he has been charged, then the verdict must be "not guilty."

Actus Reus

A guilty (prohibited) act. The commission of a prohibited act is one of the two essential elements required for criminal liability, the other element being the intent to commit a crime.

Mens Rea

Mental state, or intent. Normally, a wrongful mental state is as necessary as a wrongful act to establish criminal liability. What constitutes such a mental state varies according to the wrongful action. Thus, for murder, the mens rea is the intent to take a life.


The act of forcefully and unlawfully taking personal property of any value from another. Force or intimidation is usually necessary for an act of theft to be considered a robbery.


The unlawful entry or breaking into a building with the intent to commit a felony. (Some state statutes expand this to include the intent to commit any crime.)


The wrongful taking and carrying away of another person's personal property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. Some states classify larceny as either grand or petit, depending on the property's value.


The intentional burning of another's building. Some statutes have expanded this to include any real property regardless of ownership and the destruction of property by other means - for example, by explosion.


The fraudulent making or altering of any writing in a way that changes the legal rights and liabilities of another.

White-Collar Crime

Nonviolent crime committed by individuals or corporations to obtain a personal or business advantage.


The fraudulent appropriation of funds or other property by a person to whome the funds or property has been entrusted.

Money Laundering

Engaging in financial transactions to conceal the identity, source, or destination of illegally gained funds.


A crime - such as arson, murder, rape, or roberry - that carries the most severe sanctions, ranging from one year in a state or federal prison to the death penalty.


A lesser crime than a felony, punishable by a fine or incarceration in jail up to one year.

Petty Offense

In criminal law, the least serious kind of criminal offense, such as a traffic or building-code violation.


The legally recognized privilege to protect oneself or one's property against injury by another. The privilege of self-defense usually applies only to acts that are reasonably necessary to protect oneself, one's property, or another person.


Unlawful pressure brought to bear on a person, causing the person to perform an act that she or he would not otherwise perform.


In criminal law, a defense in which the defendent claims that he or she was induced by a public official - usually an undercover agent or police officer - to commit a crime that he or she would otherwise not have committed.


The giving of testimony that may subject the testifier to criminal prosecution. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against self-incrimination by providing that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

Plea Bargaining

The process by which a criminal defendent and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case, subject to court approval; usually involves the defendent's pleading guilty to a lesser offense in return for a lighter sentence.

Search Warrant

An order granted by a public authority, such as a judge, that authorizes law enforcement personnel to search premises or property.

Probable Cause

Reasonable grounds for believing that a person should be arrested or searched.

Double Jeapardy

A situation occurring when a person is tried twice for the same criminal offense; prohibited by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Exclusionary Rule

In criminal procedure, a rule under which any evidence that is obtained in violation of the accused's constitutional rights guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as any evidence derived from the illegally obtained evidence, will not be admissable in court.


A charge by a grand jury that a named person has committed a crime.

Grand Jury

A group of citizens called to decide, after hearing the state's evidence, whether a reasonable basis (probable cause) exists for believing that a crime has been committed and that a trial ought to be held.


A formal accusation or complaint (without an indictment) issued in certain types of actions (usually criminal actions involving lesser crimes) by a government prosecutor.

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