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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.

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.

INFRACTION

A minor violation of the law that is punishable only by a fine--for example, a traffic or parking ticket. Not all vehicle-related violations are infractions, ho... (more...)
A minor violation of the law that is punishable only by a fine--for example, a traffic or parking ticket. Not all vehicle-related violations are infractions, however--refusing to identify oneself when involved in an accident is a misdemeanor in some states.

INTERROGATION

A term that describes vigorous questioning, usually by the police of a suspect in custody. Other than providing his name and address, the suspect is not obligat... (more...)
A term that describes vigorous questioning, usually by the police of a suspect in custody. Other than providing his name and address, the suspect is not obligated to answer the questions, and the fact that he has remained silent generally cannot be used by the prosecution to help prove that he is guilty of a crime. If the suspect has asked for a lawyer, the police must cease questioning. If they do not, they cannot use the answers against the suspect at trial.

DIRECTED VERDICT

A ruling by a judge, typically made after the plaintiff has presented all of her evidence but before the defendant puts on his case, that awards judgment to the... (more...)
A ruling by a judge, typically made after the plaintiff has presented all of her evidence but before the defendant puts on his case, that awards judgment to the defendant. A directed verdict is usually made because the judge concludes the plaintiff has failed to offer the minimum amount of evidence to prove her case even if there were no opposition. In other words, the judge is saying that, as a matter of law, no reasonable jury could decide in the plaintiff's favor. In a criminal case, a directed verdict is a judgement of acquittal for the defendant.

MCNAGHTEN RULE

The earliest and most common test for criminal insanity, in which a criminal defendant is judged legally insane only if he could not distinguish right from wron... (more...)
The earliest and most common test for criminal insanity, in which a criminal defendant is judged legally insane only if he could not distinguish right from wrong at the time he committed the crime. For example, a delusional psychotic who believed that his assaultive acts were in response to the will of God would not be criminally responsible for his acts.

JURY

Criminal Law Traffic TicketshomeGLOSSARY jury A group of people selected to apply the law, as stated by the judge, to the facts of a case and render a decision,... (more...)
Criminal Law Traffic TicketshomeGLOSSARY jury A group of people selected to apply the law, as stated by the judge, to the facts of a case and render a decision, called the verdict. Traditionally, an American jury was made up of 12 people who had to arrive at a unanimous decision. But today, in many states, juries in civil cases may be composed of as few as six members and non-unanimous verdicts may be permitted. (Most states still require 12-person, unanimous verdicts for criminal trials.) Tracing its history back over 1,000 years, the jury system was brought to England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The philosophy behind the jury system is that--especially in a criminal case--an accused's guilt or innocence should be judged by a group of people from her community ('a jury of her peers'). Recently, some courts have been experimenting with increasing the traditionally rather passive role of the jury by encouraging jurors to take notes and ask questions.

CAPITAL CASE

A prosecution for murder in which the jury is also asked to decide if the defendant is guilty and, if he is, whether he should be put to death. When a prosecuto... (more...)
A prosecution for murder in which the jury is also asked to decide if the defendant is guilty and, if he is, whether he should be put to death. When a prosecutor brings a capital case (also called a death penalty case), she must charge one or more 'special circumstances' that the jury must find to be true in order to sentence the defendant to death. Each state (and the federal government) has its own list of special circumstances, but common ones include multiple murders, use of a bomb or a finding that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

LARCENY

Another term for theft. Although the definition of this term differs from state to state, it typically means taking property belonging to another with the inten... (more...)
Another term for theft. Although the definition of this term differs from state to state, it typically means taking property belonging to another with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. If the taking is non forceful, it is larceny; if it is accompanied by force or fear directed against a person, it is robbery, a much more serious offense.

SAMPLE LEGAL CASES

Commonwealth v. Vick

... Further, the defendant continues, the judge's instruction was highly prejudicial because it improperly suggested to the jury that his statements and actions may have had criminal connotations when, in the defendant's view, the evidence against him was far from overwhelming. ...

Commonwealth v. Bostock

... The underlying policies of Gonsalves urge us not to extend its holding to a case where the police have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. ... Id. at 663. A reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is justification to act in a more intrusive manner. ...

Wenger v. Aceto

... On February 3, the defendant had the formal written demand delivered by hand to the plaintiff. In the letter, the defendant notified the plaintiff of his intent to apply for criminal charges against him if he (the plaintiff) failed to provide payment as promised. ...