Criminal Defense Glossary
The law is a language unto itself. In modern times, we refer to the language of courtrooms, pleadings, and laws as “legalese.” This term is no more than a playful characterization of legal jargon. And while it may take several years of law school to truly ascertain the technical meanings of judicial terms, the following is a glossary of the more common ones:
Jurisdiction: Jurisdiction refers to a court’s ability to exercise power over a defendant. For a State to have jurisdiction over a criminal proceedings, the criminal act must “touch” the State in some manner. The most common example is committing a crime within a State. If you steal something in Arizona, you are subject to prosecution in Arizona courts.
Felony: A felony is a criminal offense which can result in a year or more in prison. There are six classes of felonies in Arizona, ranging from a class 1 to a class 6. These are very serious crimes with serious consequences.
Misdemeanor: A misdemeanor is a criminal offense which can result in less than a year in prison. There are three classes of misdemeanors in Arizona, ranging from a class 1 to a class 3. These are less serious offenses, but can carry jail time nonetheless.
Mens Rea: This is a latin term which translates literally to “guilty mind.” This is the required mental state for any given crime. There are several different types of mens rea: intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. For example, to commit the crime of “Minor Prostitution”, a defendant must know the victim is a minor. In this example, “know” is the culpable mental state.
Warrant: There are two different types of warrants. First, there is an arrest warrant. This is a warrant issued by a magistrate mandating there is probable cause to arrest you for committing a crime or violating the terms of your probation. A search and seizure warrant is also issued by a magistrate, but it used for the purpose of gathering evidence for a criminal investigation. A warrant must be supported by an affidavit in support thereof. This is a sworn document attested to by a police officer which makes certain factual representations to the magistrate. If the magistrate finds there is sufficient probable cause for the issuance of the warrant, they will sign it. It should be noted that a warrant must be specific in nature; it must include the location and time when the warrant will be executed. It must also include the items to be seized.
Arraignment: An arraignment is one of the earliest proceedings in a criminal case. While it may seem technical, this term merely refers to the hearing where the judge enters a plea of “not guilty.”
Grand Jury: For more serious crimes, the State will bring the alleged charges before a grand jury. A grand jury is a special panel that sits in a courtroom for several hours a day. These proceedings are held in secret, and neither the defendant nor his defense attorney are entitled to attend (subject to limited exceptions). Prosecutors come to the grand jury with witnesses (i.e., a police officer) and present their case. After the facts are presented to the Grand Jury, the Grand Jury is charged with determining whether there is enough evidence to prosecute the case. If so, they return a “True Bill” or an Indictment.
Indictment: An indictment is the result of a Grand Jury proceeding. If a Grand Jury believes there is probable cause to prosecute the alleged charges, they will return a sworn copy with all the allegations. An indictment will list the charges, the date of each offense, and the class felony of each offense.
“Class 6 Open” (Undesignated): In Arizona, defendants can receive a “Class 6 Open” or “Class 6 Undesignated” felony. This is the aim and goal for defendants who may have serious charges but no prior felony convictions on their record. A class 6 open refers to a class 6 felony which can become a misdemeanor upon successful completion of probation. In effect, a defendant can earn a misdemeanor if they comply with all the terms of their probation for the allotted probationary term.
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