Common Terms Used In The Criminal Law

In California, courts are divided between trial courts and appellate courts. The trial courts are the forums wherein cases are litigated by the presentation of evidence before a trier of fact (judge or jury). Appellate courts review the results of trial courts. Only under extraordinary circumstances might an appellate court take evidence. Appellate courts are bound by the evidence as it was found by the trial court. Appellate courts presume the validity of the action of the trial courts and will rarely reverse the trial courts, generally only if an error of law was shown which prohibited the accused from receiving a fair trial and the results of that trial reasonably can be predicted to be better for the defendant if the error had not been made.
This identifies the party to the lawsuit who has the responsibility for going forward with evidence. In addition, it often speaks to the test of the sufficiency of the evidence offered by that party. In criminal cases it is the duty of the prosecution to prove a case against the accused before the accused need present a defense. If the prosecution cannot offer admissible evidence then the defendant is freed. The defendant cannot be required to offer evidence when the prosecution has failed to meet its burden of proof. (See Reasonable Doubt, Presumption of Innocence.)
These are crimes which are punishable by death. In California all capital offenses are murders. All persons charged with such crimes are required to have the assistance of counsel pursuant to section 987 (b) of the California Penal Code. In such cases the court may also appoint a second attorney to assist the defense upon application of the first counsel as provided by section 987 (d) of the California Penal Code.
Generally refers to the information made available by each side of the case to the other. The prosecutor has a Constitutional obligation to disclose to the defense any evidence which is exculpatory (that is, things that would tend to show that the accused person might not be guilty or which would reduce or mitigate the guilt). Common discovery items are copies of the police reports and laboratory investigation results as well as tapes of witness interviews and photographs of scenes. The defense has a duty to produce the names of witnesses and to disclose physical evidence it intends to use at the trial. This process is controlled by statute and court rule as well as the Constitution of the state and United States. The defense never has to disclose statements made by the defendant nor whether or not the defendant intends to testify at trial.
The concept of double jeopardy is that a person shall not be prosecuted more than one time for a crime. This is to prevent the government from continually trying a client until they obtain a conviction. Generally, this rule requires the prosecution to bring all charges related to an event to trial at one time. If they fail to do this and a person is either convicted or acquitted of the charges actually filed, the prosecution will be prohibited from filing additional charges later. This rule does not prohibit re-trial of cases in which the jury was unable to reach a verdict or which were dismissed prior to trial.
This refers to the concept of prohibiting the prosecution from using evidence which it obtained illegally. Usually the illegality has to do with law enforcement violating the Constitutional rights of the defendant, as, for example, unlawfully entering into the defendants home and seizing articles therein. The idea behind the rule is that the government should not benefit from misconduct of its agents. Some commentators also believe that the use of such evidence sullies the courts and should be prohibited for that purpose as well. The hoped for result of the exclusionary rule is to educate and improve law enforcement with the results that the people of the country will be less subject to violation of their rights. Alternatives to the use of the exclusionary rule have been proposed. The main alternative is to allow those whose rights have been violated to sue the agent or agency which acted improperly. Critics of this on both sides of the fence abound. Civil libertarians note that juries are unlikely to award damages to criminals who are caught illegally even if their rights were violated and therefore the remedy is ineffective. This fact also is noted by those who say such a rule would encourage law enforcement agents to fabricate evidence when they have acted improperly solely for the purpose of protecting themselves from personal liability. Law enforcement agents note that such personal liability might discourage the vigorous investigation and enforcement of criminal laws as officers would be intimidated by the risk to themselves if they erred.
In California the term felony refers to crimes which are punishable by incarceration in state prison. Other than capital offenses, these are the most serious crimes. Lesser crimes are misdemeanors and infractions. See sections 16-19.8 of the California Penal Code.
In common parlance, the phrase is used to refer to the right of a person to remain silent without such silence being taken as evidence of guilt. The right is based on the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The public is most frequently exposed to this concept through fictional accounts of Miranda Rights. The Miranda warning was created by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Miranda v. Arizona wherein Chief Justice Earl Warren reviewed the historic problem of law enforcement failing to honor the right of arrestees not to talk about the subject of their arrest. In response, the court imposed a duty upon arresting officers to advise people who are suspected and involuntarily detained that they need not respond to questions designed to incriminate them. Failure to make such a warning and obtain an agreement of the arrested person to talk can result in the exclusion of any statement that person may make.
In California, criminal juries must be unanimous in their verdict. This means that all 12 jurors must agree upon the decision. If the jury fails to agree the result is a hung jury. In such cases the matter will be re-set for trial.
In California the term infraction has a specific legal meaning in the criminal law (see sections 16-19.8 of the California Penal Code). Infractions are the least significant offenses in this state as they are not punishable by incarceration of any kind. People charged with infractions are not entitled to the assistance of the Public Defender, although they may be represented by retained counsel in such cases. Typical infractions are traffic law violations and local ordinance crimes.
The judicial officer that presides over a case once filed in the trial court. Judges are lawyers who have been a member of the bar for at least 10 years prior to becoming a judge. While they are elected by the public for six year terms, most are originally appointed to the job by the Governor who has the power to fill openings as they occur.
Judicial officers who sit on the appellate courts are called Justices. The highest judge of the Supreme Court is known as the Chief Justice. In early times, judges of the lowest level trial courts were known as Justices of the Peace. In the beginning, and until the 1970s in California, such officers were not required to be lawyers or to have legal training.
The role assumed by a judge when presiding over certain matters, most commonly, preliminary hearings.
In California the term misdemeanor refers to crimes which are punishable by not more than one year in the local jail. These class of crimes are the intermediate level offenses in the state. Lesser crimes are infractions, greater crimes are felonies or capital offenses. See sections 16-19.8 of the California Penal Code.
Persons accused of crimes are presumed to be innocent under our Constitution. This creates a burden of proof on the accuser to overcome that presumption and to prove the case against the accused. (See Burden of Proof, Reasonable Doubt.)
In criminal cases the state is required to prove the guilt of an accused person beyond a reasonable doubt. This is defined by California Penal Code section 1096 as, It is not a mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction of the truth of the charges. (See Burden of Proof, Presumption of Innocence.)
The term strikes in the criminal law refers to prior convictions, in particular to sentencing laws that increase the sentences of convicted persons when such person has prior convictions. In California the 3 strikes law was passed by voter initiative and mandates minimum sentences of 25 years to life for any defendant who has a two prior felony convictions.
A Subpoena an order of the court compelling a person to attend a trial and give evidence. Disobedience of such an order may result in the arrest of the person subpoenaed. A subpoena may also order you to produce physical items such as records or objects. This is called a subpoena duces tecum.
These are the courts located in the community which handle the day-to-day business of the law. All cases begin in the trial courts. Misdemeanors and infractions are heard in the lower courts (Justice and Municipal) whereas felony cases are heard in the Superior Courts. However, recently the division of trial courts between Justice Courts, Municipal Courts, and Superior Courts has been reduced. In most counties all trial courts are being consolidated into one Superior Court and the distinctions between the cases heard by the previous categories is being eliminated. (See Appellate Courts.)
In California this term is used to identify crimes which are punishable either as a felony or as a misdemeanor. This distinction is made in the Penal Code. When a case is a wobbler, the district attorney has discretion to file it at either level. Following conviction, the sentencing judge has similar discretion to sentence the defendant to either a misdemeanor or felony sentence.
See wobbler. Wobblettes are crimes which are punishable as either misdemeanors or infractions.