General Criminal Terms

Criminal Case

A case brought by the Government or the People which might result in jail or prison (i.e. loss of liberty — not just money; if it's just about money it is a civil case).

Jail

Short-term detention facility, often run by New York City Department of Corrections.

Prison

Long-term detention facility (i.e. more than one year), usually run by the State of New York Department of Correctional Services or the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Arrest

An official detention. Generally, when a person is arrested, he is brought to the police station, identified, paperwork is filled out and he may be interrogated. He is then brought before a judge for arraignment, theoretically within 24 hours.

Interrogation (''Questioning'')

Formal, sometimes aggressive, questioning by police or officials when a person is first arrested. A person should almost never answer any questions during interrogation without first speaking to a lawyer. All people in the United States have a right to remain silent, a right to an attorney in a criminal case, and a presumption of innocence. Demaning a lawyer before the interrogation begins can often make the difference between being sent to jail or not.

Arraignment

The first appearance before a judge after a person has been arrested. Charges are read, bail is set and the case is adjourned for further proceedings.

Bail

Money or a promise that is put down by a defendant to make sure he will come back to court. For example, bail may be set at $5000 cash. In that case, the defendant (or more likely someone acting on his behalf) has to deposit $5000 with the court. If he does not appear for court, he loses the money and the police come to arrest him. If he comes to court, the bail is returned at the end of the trial.

Guilty Plea

An in-court statement by the defendant that he did a crime. Usually a defendant "pleads guilty" of one crime in return for the prosecutor dropping other charges against him.

Motions

Formal requests to the court for pre-trial relief such as to suppress evidence, compel information to be turned over by the prosecutor, or to dismiss the complaint. Most motions are done in writing and supported by a legal memorandum.

Hearings

Formal proceedings with sworn witnesses making statements about points in issue on the motions (e.g. a police officer stating that the defendant was properly arrested).

Trial

A formal proceeding in which witnesses give testimony to prove that the defendant actually did the crime.

Sentencing

After trial or guilty plea, a date is put down for when the judge decides what the person's sentence will be. Sentences may include jail time, fines, restitution (i.e. money being paid back to the victim of the crime) and special conditions like probation.

United States Sentencing Guidelines

The United States Sentencing Guidelines are used to help judge’s in federal court determine a proper sentence. Until 2005, the Guidelines were mandatory, meaning that judges were required to follow them. The Supreme Court subsequently made the Guidelines advisory, but they still profoundly influence the sentences handed out in federal court. Calculating the sentence under the Guidelines is a complicated process that takes into consideration the offense conduct, the defendant’s role in the offense, the amount or quantity of illegal items involved (for example, the number of images in a child pornography case), and the defendant’s criminal history.

Appeal

A request to a higher court to overturn the outcome of the trial, usually based on an error at the trial such as the admission of improper evidence or bad jury instructions.

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