Legal Terms​

Arraignment

A proceeding in which a criminal defendant is brought into court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.
 

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The standard in a criminal case requiring that the jury be satisfied to a moral certainty that every element of a crime has been proven by the prosecution. This standard of proof does not require that the Commonwealth’s establish absolute certainty by eliminating all doubt, but it does require that the evidence be so conclusive that all reasonable doubts are removed from the mind of the ordinary person.

 

Conviction

When a judge or jury finds a criminal defendant guilty of violating the law.
 

Court-Appointed Attorney

Attorney appointed by the court to represent a defendant, usually with respect to criminal charges and without the defendant having to pay for the representation.
 

Crime

Something you do, or fail to do, that breaks a law that says you can’t do it or must do it. If you are found guilty, you can be punished by one or more of the following:
  1. death;
  2. jail or prison;
  3. fine;
  4. probation;
  5. being removed from office;
  6. being unable to hold any office of honor, trust, or profit.
 

Custody

Detaining of a person by lawful process or authority to assure his or her appearance to any hearing; the jailing or imprisonment of a person convicted of a crime.

 

Defendant

The person charged with committing a crime.

 

Commonwealth's Attorney

A public servant that prosecutes criminal cases and pursues justice on behalf of the Commonwealth.
 

Elements of a Crime

Specific factors that define a crime that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction: (1) that a crime has actually occurred, (2) that the accused intended the crime to happen, and (3) a timely relationship between the first two factors.
 

Felony

A serious criminal offense. Under Virginia law any offense punishable by death or imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
 

Grand Jury

A body of five to seven citizens who listen to evidence of criminal allegations, presented by a Commonwealth’s or an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, and determine whether there is adequate evidence to warrant a trial by a jury or a judge.
 

Guilty Plea

When a defendant admits, in writing, that he/she committed a certain crime in open court.
 

Guilty Verdict

Refers to a jury’s or judge’s finding that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the offense charged.
 

Indictment

The formal charge issued by a Grand Jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies.

 

Indigent

Needy or impoverished. A defendant who can demonstrate his or her indigence to the court may be assigned a court-appointed attorney at public expense.
 

Information

A written accusation charging a person with a crime. It is presented in court by a prosecuting officer under oath and does not come from a grand jury, although an indictment will ultimately need to be sought . (See indictment.)
 

Juvenile

A person under 18 years of age.
 

Magistrate

While a state magistrate is a neutral and detached judicial officer, a magistrate is not a judge. A magistrate may issue arrest and search warrants to law enforcement officers. However, before a magistrate can issue a felony arrest warrant, he must prior authorization from a prosecutor or law enforcement officer. A magistrate is usually the judicial officer who initially determines whether an arrestee will be held in jail pre-trial or released on bail. If he determines that bail is appropriate, he will set the terms of bail, including the amount of bond if any. He is also authorized to issue subpoenas for witnesses to appear in court.

Misdemeanor

An offense punishable by 12 months in jail or less. See also Felony.
 

Not Guilty Verdict

In our legal system, a defendant is presumed innocent during criminal proceedings. A not guilty verdict refers to a jury’s or judge’s finding that the prosecution has not proved the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It does not mean that a defendant is innocent.
 

No True Bill

The determination by a grand jury stating that there is not enough evidence to prove the defendant committed the crime. A No True Bill may results in having charges dismissed.
 

Offense

Conduct for which a sentence to a term of imprisonment or to a fine or probation is provided by any law of this Commonwealth’s or by any law or ordinance of a political subdivision of this Commonwealth’s.
 

Plea

The first pleading by a criminal defendant, the defendant's declaration in open court that he or she is guilty or not guilty. The defendant's answer to the charges made in the indictment or information.

 

Plea Agreement

Negotiation between the prosecuting attorney and the person accused of a crime or that person's lawyer in exchange a guilty plea for conviction of a lesser charge, reduction of charges or a specific sentence, if the court approves. This is often incorrectly referred to as a “plea bargain.”
 

Preliminary Hearing

A hearing before a judge to determine if a person charged with a felony should be tried for the crime charged, based on whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it.
 

Probable Cause

A substantial objective basis for believing that more likely than not an offense has been committed and a person to be arrested has committed it.
 

Prosecute

To charge someone with a crime and then try them for it in court. A prosecutor (also called "Commonwealth’s Attorney") tries a criminal case on behalf of the Commonwealth.
 

Public Defender

A lawyer appointed by the court, usually to represent a defendant in a criminal case that can't afford to hire a lawyer.
 

Reasonable Doubt

Under Virginia law, a jury must return a verdict of not guilty if, after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence in the case, they are not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. Reasonable doubt means an honest uncertainty as to the guilt of the defendant.
 

Sentence

The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.

Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys

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Lynchburg, VA 24503