Probation in the United States A criminal sentence that allows a person to return to the community under supervised release. Probation is an alternative to imprisonment and is applied to almost two-thirds of sentenced offenders in the United States. Control is maintained over the offender by […]


Disclosure in the United States Release of information by one side in a legal case to the other side. Disclosure typically involves a prosecutor revealing information to the defense in a criminal case, but defense disclosure occurs in certain situations as well. Disclosure is a kind of […]


Discretion in the United States Power possessed by officials to act on the basis of their own judgment. Discretion gives officials choices in making decisions, but the choices are not unbounded. Rather, discretion is generally circumscribed by some rules or principles and cannot be arbitrarily […]

Grand Jury

Grand Jury in the United States An investigative body that makes accusations rather than determines guilt. The grand jury evaluates information generated on its own or brought to it by a prosecutor. If the grand jury determines that probable cause exists, it returns an indictment against an […]


Crimes in the United States Crimes are defined by legislative bodies at both the federal and state levels. Only a very small proportion of criminal cases (something under two percent) are federal, because the federal government has limited police power. Rather, the prosecution of criminal […]

Statute Of Limitations

Statute of Limitations in the United States A law that establishes a time period within which legal action must commence. Statutes of limitation are legislative enactments and the operative time limits vary across jurisdictions and by the issue involved. Statutes of limitation typically set […]

Search And Seizure

Search and Seizure in the United States Action of government officials whereby people or places are examined in an effort to locate and confiscate evidence of a crime. Government power to search and seize is part of its greater authority to exercise police power and enforce the law. The power […]


Immunity in the United States A means of securing testimony in a judicial or legislative proceeding by satisfying the privilege against self-incrimination. Immunity prevents a person from involuntarily becoming a witness against himself or herself. The government can compel a person to […]


Restitution in the United States Repayment to a victim of losses suffered at the hands of a criminal offender. The idea of restitution is that no person ought to be enriched by misconduct against another. While restitution has been a component of the American justice system from the […]


Venue in the United States The geographical area or district in which a court may hear a case. Venue refers to the location of a trial. Venue differs from jurisdiction in that the latter defines the authority of a court to hear a matter while the former defines only the place that judicial […]


Evidence in the United States Material presented as proof at a trial. Evidence provides the basis upon which a fact dispute is resolved. Evidence generally takes the form of witness testimony or physical objects such as documents and records. Parties to a dispute are entitled to submit […]

Plea Bargaining

Plea Bargaining in the United States A process whereby the prosecutor and the accused negotiate through his or her attorney a mutually acceptable settlement in a criminal case. The practice of plea bargaining is extensive in the United States. Approximately ninety percent of all criminal […]


Jury in the United States A specific number of citizens called to render a judgment on various issues of fact in a legal proceeding. A jury functions in its most common forms as a grand jury or as a petit, or trial, jury. The grand jury hears evidence and determines whether a person must stand […]


Hearsay in the United States A statement by a witness repeating the words of another person rather than testifying on the basis of direct knowledge. Hearsay testimony is not based on what a witness sees, hears, or otherwise senses himself or herself. Rather, hearsay repeats what someone else […]


Complaint in the United States A charging method generally reserved for less serious criminal violations. A complaint may also be used in civil cases in which the assertion of a claim is made to initiate the legal action. In criminal cases, a complaint is submitted to a judicial officer and […]


Indictment in the United States A formal accusation brought by a grand jury. If a grand jury decides by a majority vote to return a true bill; an indictment is issued after consideration of evidence presented by a prosecutor. A true bill represents a grand jury finding that the prosecutor has […]

Probable Cause

Probable Cause in the United States Standard of evidence used to assess various governmental actions in criminal matters. Probable cause is a level of evidence required to convince a judicial officer to issue an arrest or search warrant or bind a case over for trial. The level of evidence […]


Misdemeanor in the United States A misdemeanor is a relatively minor criminal offense. Misdemeanors are generally punished by fine, but can involve detention at a county jail for up to one year. Misdemeanors are defined by each state and will vary somewhat. Some states choose to create […]


Subpoena in the United States An order that commands a person to appear at a particular time and place to offer testimony. Subpoenas are most likely to be issued by courts and grand juries, but may also come from legislative bodies or independent commissions. A subpoena duces tecum is a […]


Information in the United States An accusation made by a prosecuting attorney before a court. The information is offered under oath and supports the charges with at least probable cause level evidence. The information is used in almost every state for misdemeanors, but more than half the […]


Mistrial in the United States A trial ended before it arrives at a conclusion. A mistrial occurs in the wake of an extraordinary situation. A mistrial may be declared, for example, because one or more of the jurors cannot continue. More often, a mistrial occurs because of a prejudicial error […]


Parole in the United States Release of a prisoner prior to the end of a criminal sentence. The release of a prisoner on parole is conditional. The person is supervised during the release period by a parole officer. Failure to conform to the conditions of parole results in its revocation and […]

Status Offense

Status Offense in the United States A kind of violation or offense that is defined by the character or condition of the offender. Vagrancy, for example, is a status crime. A vagrant is a person who has no visible means of support. Status crimes or offenses are most commonly used in connection […]

Criminal Cases

Criminal Cases in the United States Criminal cases can be divided into at least three categories. The most serious criminal cases are felonies. Most states and the federal government define felonies as crimes for which a prison sentence of at least one year could result. Misdemeanors, on the […]


Acquittal in the United States Formal certification that a person is not guilty of a criminal charge. An acquittal is a finding of fact by a jury or a judge that the state has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the charged offense. A case dismissed before trial […]


Arraignment in the United States An early step in the criminal process where a defendant is formally charged. The arraignment typically occurs after a defendant is bound over; that is, following an indictment or the filing of an information. At the arraignment, the defendant appears before the […]


Warrant in the United States An order issued by a court authorizing the arrest of a person or the search of a specified location. The warrant requirement in criminal cases is found in the Fourth Amendment following the assertion of the people’s right to be secure against unreasonable […]


Felony in the United States A classification that covers the most serious kind of crime. Felonies can be penalized by imprisonment for a year or more. A felony is different from petty crimes, which are called misdemeanors. Conviction for certain felonies may bring the possibility of the death […]

Nolo Contendere

Nolo Contendere in the United States The equivalent of a plea of guilty to a criminal charge. The nolo conteyidere plea literally means I will not contest it. The nolo contendere or no contest plea has value to a criminal defendant only under particular circumstances. While the plea leaves the […]

Double Jeopardy

Double Jeopardy in the United States Subjecting an individual to prosecution more than once for the same crime. The provision against double jeopardy precludes the state from repeatedly putting a citizen through the ordeal of prosecution for a particular offense and the possibility of […]


Pardon in the United States The power to grant exemption from criminal penalty. The power to pardon is discussed in Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. It conveys to the president power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of […]

Voir Dire

Voir Dire in the United States Process by which prospective jurors are examined to determine both competence and impartiality. The term voir dire is French and translates to speak the truth. The voir dire process is conducted by the presiding judge, counsel, or both. Members of the venire are […]