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Terms in the Criminal Legal System

This glossary is intended to provide a brief explanation of words commonly used in the criminal legal system.


A

Accessory

A person who knowingly and intentionally helps someone else commit a crime, either before by encouraging the crime or after by concealing the crime.

Accomplice

A person who helps someone else commit a crime. Can be on purpose or not.

Acquittal

When a judge or jury finds that the person on trial is not guilty. An acquittal is not a declaration of the accused’s innocence; it simply means that the judge or jury was not convinced that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Adjudicate

In general, a final judicial determination of a case.

In Juvenile Court, it means the equivalent of a “conviction” in adult criminal cases, when the court formally takes jurisdiction of the minor due to a plea or a trial verdict.

Advisement

An explanation by a judge of the charges against a defendant.

  • 1st Advisement: A hearing in which the judge informs a suspect of the charges for which the suspect is being investigated.
  • 2nd Advisement: A hearing in which the judge advises the defendant of the formal filing of charges against him or her.

Affidavit

A person’s written statement of fact or facts made under oath or affirmation in front of someone authorized to administer the oath or affirmation, like a judge or notary public.

An arrest affidavit is a sworn written statement by a law enforcement officer supporting a request to a judge to issue a warrant for a person’s arrest.

Arraignment

A hearing at which the defendant is advised of the charges and the defendant’s rights, and a plea of guilty or not guilty is entered.

Arrest

Taking custody of a person in order to detain him or her to answer for a criminal charge.

Arrest warrant

A written order issued by a judge based on a sworn affidavit establishing probable cause that an offense has been committed which authorizes a police officer to arrest the suspect.

B

Bail/bond

The amount of money, in cash or secured by property or surety (a third-party guarantor of the amount) required to ensure that a person released from custody after arrest will appear at all future court dates. Bond is set by a judge or magistrate, not the police or the district attorney.

A personal recognizance bond releases a person from custody based on that person’s word that he or she will return to court.

Bail/bond forfeiture

A court order to let the court keep the bail deposit because the defendant failed to appear in court as promised. A cancellation of the bond.

Bench trial

A trial without a jury. The judge or magistrate decides the case. Also known as a “trial to the court.”

Bench warrant

A warrant issued by the court for the arrest of a person for violating the judge’s orders. If a defendant fails to appear for a court appearance as scheduled, a “Failure to Appear” (FTA) warrant is issued by the judge.

Bind over

Finding at a felony preliminary hearing in County Court that probable cause exists to proceed to trial in District Court on the charges filed against the defendant.

Bond reduction or modification hearing

A hearing requested by the defendant or by the prosecution asking the judge to modify, reduce or increase the bond originally set.

Booked/Booking

The process of formally recording a person’s arrest. Includes taking fingerprints, photographs, and writing down other identifying information about the arrestee.

Burden of proof

The level of proof required to show or prove the facts and elements of a crime against a suspect or defendant. Different burdens of proof exist in the law:

  • Probable cause—a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime. Level of information needed for arrest. Sufficient facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge that are sufficient to warrant a prudent person to believe a suspect has committed a crime.
  • Preponderance of the evidence—the burden of proof in civil cases and in some motions hearings in criminal cases. Evidence which, as a whole, shows that the fact sought to be proved is more probable than not. Something more than 50% of the credible evidence.
  • Clear and convincing—the burden of proof in selected proceedings, such as termination of parental rights. A little more difficult to quantify, but something more than “preponderance” and less than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
  • Beyond a reasonable doubt—the burden of proof in criminal cases. The degree of belief a juror or judge must have regarding all factual elements of a charged crime.

C

Case

A dispute between opposing parties resolved by a court, or by some equivalent legal process. A case may be either civil or criminal.

Case number

The number assigned by the court to identify each case. It includes the year in which the case is filed, followed by “CR” for felonies, or “M” for misdemeanors, then followed by numbers indicating the sequence of the case among those cases filed in that particular judicial district: “17CR01235” or “16M04552.”

City Attorney criminal cases will have will have “GS” or “D” in the case number.

Change of venue

The transfer of a case to another jurisdiction. Frequently used in the juvenile court system to refer to the transfer of probation supervision to another jurisdiction.

Charge

In criminal law, each crime the defendant is accused of. Also referred to as a “count.”

Charging document

A written statement to the court containing the charges or counts against a defendant. Called the “Complaint,” “Complaint and Information,” “Information,” “Summons and Complaint,” or “Indictment.”

Cold case

A felony crime for which there have been no active leads for a year or more after it was first reported to the police.

Community corrections

A program that manages parolees and offenders transitioning out of the Department of Corrections (state prison) that includes residential facilities (half-way houses) and community supervision.

Competency examination

A court-ordered examination of the defendant to determine if they are mentally competent to understand the nature of the criminal trial and to assist their attorney in their own defense. Insanity and competency are two different things. An insane person may still be competent to proceed to trial. All persons found “not guilty by reason of insanity” at trial have been determined competent to stand trial.

Competency hearing

A court-ordered hearing to determine if a defendant is competent to understand the nature of the criminal trial and to assist his attorney in his own defense. The court usually holds the hearing after a psychologist or psychiatrist completes an examination of the defendant.

Complaint

See “Charging document”

Concurrent sentence

Upon conviction of multiple crimes, when a person serves more than one sentence at the same time. For example, if concurrent sentences of 10 and 5 years are imposed, the defendant serves a total of 10 years.

Consecutive sentence

Upon conviction of multiple crimes, when a person serves one sentence after the other, rather than at the same time. For example, if consecutive sentences of 10 and 5 years are imposed, the defendant serves a total of 15 years.

Continuance

The postponement and rescheduling of a court hearing, approved by the judge.

Conviction

The result when a judge or jury finds a criminal defendant guilty. Also the result when the defendant pleads guilty.

Count

Each separately alleged crime. Also known as a “charge.”

Credit time served

A convicted person is given time off the length of a sentence equal to the time already served in custody for the crime they are ultimately convicted of.

Crime

A violation of criminal law. Also referred to as an “offense.”


D

Defendant

In a criminal case, the person who is formally charged with a crime.

Deferred judgment

The result of a plea agreement in which a defendant pleads guilty to a crime but is given a chance to avoid a conviction by complying with certain conditions (which are generally similar to those imposed when a defendant is sentenced to probation) for a specified period of time. If the defendant completes the conditions successfully, the judgment of conviction that would normally enter on the defendant’s record after a guilty plea is never entered. If the defendant fails to complete the deferred judgment, then the deferred judgment is generally revoked and a judgment of conviction is entered.

Deliberations

The time after the trial when the jury meets in private to decide the outcome of the case.

Delinquency/Delinquent

A crime committed by a minor under the age of 18.

Department of Corrections (DOC)

The state government agency that oversees state prisons and parolees.

Direct file

The process by which a case is moved out of or bypasses one court level to another court level.

  • Juvenile direct file—in the case of juveniles between 16-18 charged with the most serious felonies, such as homicide, the prosecution may request the case be moved from Juvenile Court to adult District Court to try the juvenile as an adult.
  • Adult direct file—for adults charged with the most serious of felonies, such as homicide, the prosecution may request the case be immediately filed in District Court without first beginning in County Court. Grand Jury indictments are also directly filed in District Court.

Discovery

Evidentiary information in the possession of the District Attorney that must be given to the defense.

Dismissed with prejudice

The dismissal of charges by the judge (often at the request of the District Attorney) that disallows the re-filing of the dismissed charges.

Dismissed without prejudice

The dismissal of charges by the judge (often at the request of the District Attorney) that may be re-charged if new evidence or information is found.

Disposition

The final decision by the court in a dispute.

Disposition hearing

After a defendant has pleaded not guilty, a hearing at which the judge and lawyers may talk about how the case can be resolved without going to trial, and at which the defendant may also change their plea to guilty or no contest through a plea agreement.

Division of Youth Services (DYS)

The state government agency that oversees secure juvenile detention facilities, programs in those facilities, and juvenile parole.

Docket

A list of cases scheduled for a particular date and time in each court.


E

Electronic monitoring

A condition of bond or probation that monitors and tracks defendants in the community. Two forms of electronic monitoring are (1) GPS, that tracks a defendant’s location, and (2) SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring), which tracks alcohol consumption.

Elements

The individual items the prosecutor has to prove in order for the jury to convict a defendant of the crime charged. Elements are found in the statutes defining the crime the defendant is charged. The mental state of the defendant (intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently) at the time of the offense is usually an element of the crime.

Enhanced Supervision

Conditions put in place by Pre-Trial Services with which a defendant must comply as a condition of bond.

Expungement

When records of a juvenile’s delinquency are deemed to never have existed.

Extradition

Bringing a person that is in custody in one state to the authorities of another state. The prosecuting state must request extradition from the other state where the person is in custody.


F

Felony

The most serious criminal violation of Colorado state laws, which includes robbery, murder, rape, or possession of illegal drugs for sale. The possible punishment for a felony includes incarceration in state prison, or death. Fines may also be imposed.

In Colorado, felonies are divided into six classes. Class 6 is the lowest level of felony and Class 1 the most serious, with prison sentences ranging from 18 months to life in prison (or death penalty).

There are also four classes of drug felonies. Class 4 is the lowest, and Class 1 the highest, with prison sentences ranging from six months to 32 years in prison.


G

Grand jury

A process used by prosecutors to determine whether a person should be charged with a felony crime. It is a group of twelve area residents called by the court to sit for a certain period of time (usually a months-long period). The district attorney presents a potential case to the grand jury, which hears and examines witnesses. If at least nine of the twelve members find there is probable cause that a person has committed the alleged crime, the Grand Jury issues an indictment listing the alleged crimes committed. The indictment is the charging document that begins the criminal prosecution.

Guardian ad litem

A person appointed by the court to protect the legal interests of a person. The court will appoint a guardian ad litem in cases of juvenile abuse or neglect. The “GAL” may be an attorney.

Guilty

A court decision that a defendant committed a crime.

Guilty plea

Defendant’s admission that he or she committed a crime. The defendant must voluntarily acknowledge their guilt in court.


H

Habitual offender

A defendant who has been previously convicted two or more times of a Class 1 or Class 2 felony or a violent Class 3 felony. A habitual offender is subject to more severe sentencing. The court must consider the prior convictions in determining a sentence.

Home detention

An alternative to jail while serving a sentence. An electronic device may be ordered to keep track of where the person goes in the community and what they are doing. Travel is usually restricted, if allowed at all.


I

Indictment

A written statement presented to District Court by a grand jury listing the alleged crimes committed by a defendant.

Intensive supervision

A form of probation in which there are additional conditions, often including offense- specific treatment, and involving close and frequent contact with the probation officer.


J

Jury

A group of citizens picked according to law and authorized to decide a case.

Jury instructions

Guidelines given by the judge to the jury that explain what the law in the case is and how the jurors should evaluate the evidence.

Juvenile

A person under the age of 18.

Juvenile diversion

An alternative legal process where criminal prosecution is not pursued in exchange for the juvenile successfully participating in designated service programs. The goal of diversion is to give the juvenile a second chance and prevent his or her further involvement in the criminal justice system.

Juvenile status hearing

Similar to arraignment in the adult system, the juvenile is advised of charges, their rights, and enters a plea of guilty or not guilty.


L

Lesser included offense

A less serious crime that is also committed during the perpetration of a greater crime because the lesser crime contains some of the same elements of the greater crime. A jury may find the defendant not guilty of the greater offense (such as second degree murder), but may still convict the defendant of a lesser included offense (such as reckless manslaughter).


M

Mandatory protection order

An order issued by the judge in a criminal case, and required by law, that instructs a defendant to not contact, harass, molest, intimidate, retaliate against, or tamper with victims or witnesses of a crime.

Miranda warning

A notice or warning required by a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Miranda) to be given to a person when arrested or questioned by police advising the person about certain rights against self-incrimination (saying something that makes it sound like you are guilty).

Misdemeanor

Less serious criminal violations of Colorado state laws, punishable by a sentence of up to 18 months in county jail. A person convicted of a misdemeanor cannot be sentenced to state prison, unless the misdemeanor sentence is served simultaneously (concurrently) with a felony sentence. In Colorado, misdemeanor offenses are divided into three classes. Class 3 is the lowest level of misdemeanor and Class 1 is the most serious.

There are also two classes of drug misdemeanors, DM1 and DM2, where the maximum possible punishment is 18 months.

Mistrial

A trial that has been ended and declared by the judge to be void (of no legal effect) due to prejudicial error or other extraordinary circumstances, such as a jury’s inability to reach a verdict.

Motion

An oral or written request that a party makes to the court for a ruling or order on a particular point. A hearing is often scheduled by the court to hear arguments for and against a motion.


O

Ordinance

A regulation made a by a local government (city or county) to define, enforce, control, or limit certain allowed or prohibited activities.


P

Parole

A conditional release from prison that allows a convict to serve the rest of their sentence outside of prison if all conditions of release are met. Legally, a parolee is deemed to still be within the continuing custody of the Department of Corrections. If a parolee violates the terms of their parole, they can be sent back to prison to serve the remainder of the prison sentence.

Party

One of the named persons in a court case.

Petty offenses

The least serious criminal violations of Colorado state laws (Colorado Revised Statutes). Examples of petty offenses are third degree criminal trespass and littering of public or private property. The maximum penalty for a Class 1 Petty Offense is a fine up to $500 and/or six months in jail. The penalty for a Class 2 Petty Offense is outlined in each statute, but the penalty is usually less than a Class 1 Petty Offense.

Plea

The defendant’s statement that they are guilty or not guilty of the criminal charges filed against them.

Plea and setting

A hearing in County Court for misdemeanor cases after Advisement at which a defendant pleads guilty or not guilty and the judge sets the case for trial.

Plea agreement

An agreement in a criminal case (also called ‘plea bargain’) between the parties whereby the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge(s) in return for some concession from the prosecutor (such as a lesser charge, or agreement to a specified punishment). This agreement secures a conviction without a trial. A plea agreement must be approved by the judge.

People

The community of citizens, local or statewide, on whose behalf a criminal case is brought, as in, “The People of the State of Colorado” for state crimes, and “The People of the City and County of Denver” for municipal violations. The accusing party in a criminal case.

Post-conviction notification

The notification to victims of an offender’s status after the offender has been sentenced. The victim must register to receive notification from the various agencies that keep track of the offender.

Preliminary hearing

A hearing held in felony cases in County Court to determine whether the case should proceed to trial. The prosecutor must present evidence to prove it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the crime. If the judge decides sufficient evidence exists the case will be bound over to District Court for trial. A defendant may waive the preliminary hearing if they wish. Not all felony offenses receive a preliminary hearing.

Pre-sentence investigation (PSI)

An investigation of a defendant prepared by the probation department after conviction but prior to the sentencing hearing to assist the judge in determining an appropriate sentence. It describes the defendant’s background, including financial, job, family status, community ties, criminal history and facts about the crime. It also includes victim impact statements and victim suggestions as to what the sentence should be.

Pre-trial conference

A meeting between the prosecutor, the defendant or the defendant’s attorney and the court to resolve issues prior to trial so that the parties and the court are better prepared for trial. The parties might also discuss a plea bargain.

Pre-trial Services

Services provided by a local agency to investigate a criminal defendant’s background to assist a judge in determining what bond to set. Also monitors compliance with the conditions set by a judge that must be followed by an offender in order to remain on bond. The conditions may include electronic monitoring, monitoring of alcohol/ drug use, imposition of a curfew, and enhanced supervision.

Probation

A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which the court releases a convicted defendant under supervision of a probation officer for a specified time period to make certain the defendant complies with the conditions of a sentence imposed by the court, such as getting a job, alcohol or drug counseling and treatment. Defendants can be sentenced to unsupervised probation during which they will have to meet specific conditions put in place by probation per court order but will not be supervised by a probation officer.

Also refers to the department of the court that prepares the presentence report and oversees defendants on probation.

Probation officer

Officers of the probation department of a court. A probation officer’s duties include conducting presentence investigations, preparing the presentence reports on convicted defendants, and supervising released defendants.

Probation revocation

A court hearing to determine if a defendant has violated the conditions of probation. At the conclusion of the revocation hearing the judge determines if probation should be reinstated or if the defendant should be sentenced to prison or jail.

Protection (Restraining) order

A court order (civil, or mandatory criminal) that instructs a person to not contact, harass, molest, intimidate, or retaliate against the person for whom the protection applies.

Pro se

Refers to persons who choose to present their own cases in court without lawyers. From the Latin for “on one’s own behalf.”

Prosecutor

In general, the attorney representing ‘The People’ in a criminal case. Often used to refer to the City Attorney or District Attorney and the attorneys in those offices handling a criminal case.

Public defender

A lawyer employed by the government to represent an accused person in a criminal case who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.

Public record

A court record available for inspection by the general public.


R

Rap sheet

A written summary of a person’s criminal history.

Rebuttal

Evidence presented at trial by one party in order to overcome evidence introduced by another party.

Remand

To return the defendant to custody by court order.

When an appellate court sends a case back to lower court for further proceedings.

Restitution

An amount of money representing documented financial loss that the judge orders a defendant to pay as part of a criminal sentence.


S

Sealed record

A record closed by a court to further inspection by the public unless there is a court order to permit it.

Sentence

A judge’s formal pronouncement of the punishment to be given to a person convicted of a crime.

Sentencing hearing

A hearing after conviction at which the judge hears testimony from the parties and victims and determines the sentence.

Sequestration

A court order that applies to certain hearings which forbids the discussion of testimony
among witnesses and prevents witnesses from being in the courtroom while other witnesses are testifying.

Statute

A law passed by Congress or a state legislature (Colorado General Assembly).

Statute of limitations

The time established by law within which the crime must be charged. Once that period is over, a person cannot be prosecuted for that crime. There is no statute of limitations for murder, kidnapping, treason, or sex offenses against a child.

Subpoena

An official order to go to court at a certain time. Commonly used to tell witnesses to come to court and testify at a trial.

Subpoena to produce (subpoena duces tecum)

An official court order to bring specified documents or records to a stated place at a stated time.

Summons

In a criminal case, a notice to defendant that charges have been filed against them and their appearance in court is required. Failure to appear can result in a warrant being issued for their arrest.

Surety bond

An insurance policy taken out by a defendant in which the insurer agrees to pay the court the amount of bail required for the defendant’s release from custody before trial if the defendant fails to come to court when he or she is supposed to.


T

Temporary restraining order

A court order, sometimes called a “TRO” that says a person must not do certain things, such as refraining from all contact with the victim. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held.

TROs are often used in domestic violence cases to protect a person from violence or threats of violence.

Trial

The court process in which issues of fact and law are heard and decided so a judge or jury can make a decision in a case.


V

Verdict

The final decision as to the guilt of a criminal defendant made a judge or jury.

Victim

The person against whom a crime has been committed.

Victim Impact Statement

A statement prepared by the victim of a crime or the victim’s family the judge will consider before sentencing that provides information concerning the financial and emotional impact of the crime on the victim and/or the victim’s family.

Voire dire

The process by which judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys select members of the jury by questioning them to make sure they can fairly decide the case.


W

Warrant

A written order by a judge or other judicial officer directing a police officer to take specific action. See “arrest warrant” and “bench warrant” above.


Y

Youthful Offender System

A program of the Department of Corrections for the secure supervision of and programming for juvenile offenders who have been adjudicated as adults and have a suspended adult sentence.