Legal Definitions

Learn the meanings of all the important terms in the criminal justice system

Your glossary

Who needs a dictionary? We’ve compiled this list of definitions for words and phrases most commonly used by lawyers, judges, law enforcement and other criminal justice stakeholders.

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A person who knowingly and intentionally contributes to or assists in the commission of a crime. A person can be charged with being an “accessory-after-the-fact” if they assist someone who has committed a felony.

A person who participates in the commission of a crime, other than the person actually doing the principal criminal act. This person may be charged with the actual crime if they aid, abet, advise or encourage the principal defendant(s).

The verdict of being found “not guilty” of a crime. An acquittal is not a declaration of the accused’s “innocence” but a verdict that the prosecutor failed to prove the accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

A postponing or rescheduling of a case or court session until another date or time.

A finding by the court that a juvenile is guilty of a criminal act. Adjudication is the equivalent of conviction in adult criminal cases.

A written statement of fact verified by oath or affirmation before a notary public or officer having authority to administer oaths. In criminal cases, affidavits are not admissible in trials or hearings in lieu of testimony because the opposing party has no opportunity to cross-examine the affiant.

Affirmative Defense
A defense of extenuating or mitigating circumstances such as insanity, self-defense or entrapment to avoid criminal responsibility without denying the charge. When a defendant presents an affirmative defense with credible evidence, the prosecution must disprove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

A defense of having been at a location different than the scene of the crime at the time the crime was committed.

A document filed with the court and provided to other parties advising that an attorney is representing a specific individual.

An appearance by a criminal defendant before a judge where a plea of guilty or not guilty is entered. Witnesses do not testify at this hearing.

Arrest Warrant
An order issued by a judge or magistrate to a peace officer requiring the arrest of a named person.

Money paid to a court by or on behalf of a criminal defendant as security that the defendant will appear at all future hearings. Bail can be forfeited if the defendant violates the court’s conditions of release or fails to make their court appearance. 

Bench Trial
A trial without a jury where the judge determines the facts and decides the case.

Bench Warrant
A court order of a defendant or witness demanding their arrest and appearance in court after failing to appear for a hearing or violating a court order.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The burden of proof required for a judge or jury to find the defendant in a criminal trial guilty. Defendants are presumed innocent until this burden is met and it is the responsibility of the prosecution to prove all required elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

A finding at a preliminary hearing that probable cause exists to require a trial at the district court level on the felony charges filed against the defendant.

A financial obligation signed by the accused or a surety intended to guarantee the defendant’s future appearances in court in exchange for their temporary release. There are four types of bonds: Cash Bond, Personal Recognizance (PR) Bond, Property Bond and Surety Bond.

A process following an arrest in which law enforcement collects the accused individual’s personal information for public record. 

Burden of Proof
The standardized requirement for the prosecution/plaintiff to establish through evidence a requisite degree of belief concerning a fact in the mind of a trier of fact. Burdens of proof in law include probable cause, prima facie, preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing beyond a reasonable doubt.

Cash Bond
A form of bond for temporary release that requires the defendant to pay the full bail in cash. All or most of the money is returned if the defendant appears at all future court dates.

The process of the losing party in a case seeking judicial review from a higher court.

Circumstantial Evidence
A form of evidence that suggests a fact without directly proving it (e.g., physical evidence, motive, forensic analysis).  

City Attorney
An appointed attorney representing a city or municipality that primarily prosecutes municipal crimes and traffic offenses.

Clear & Convincing
A burden of proof for specific proceedings. The jury must have a firm belief that the claim or defense is highly probable.

Community Corrections
An alternative placement for felony offenders instead of prison. Participants undergo standardized residential supervision and treatment with restricted access to the community. 

Document in which crimes are charged in District Court, as well as the initial charging document for felonies. Also, referred to as the “information”.

Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI)
A state law enforcement agency that support local, county and state criminal justice agencies through professional investigate services, forensic laboratory analysis and management of data analysis and transmission.

Concurrent Sentence
Upon conviction for multiple crimes, a criminal sentence served at the same time as another criminal sentence, rather than one after the other. The person is released at the expiration of the longest term specified.

Consecutive Sentence
Upon conviction for multiple crimes, criminal sentences that must be served one after the other, rather than at the same time.

A delay of court proceedings that is granted by the court upon showing of good cause.

A decision by a judge or jury finding the accused guilty of the crime.

Corroborating Evidence
A form of evidence that supports an assertion already supported by evidence previously introduced.

Court-Appointed Attorney
Legal counsel assigned by the court to represent an indigent criminal defendant. A court-appointed attorney is not necessarily a “free” attorney; the court can order that some or all of the attorney’s bill be reimbursed. If jail time will not be imposed on a misdemeanor or petty offense, the judge need not appoint an attorney.

Person who has been formally charged with committing a crime.

Deferred Sentence
A sentence to probation with the condition that provides the defendant with the opportunity to have their case dismissed upon completion. Failure to comply with specified requirements may result in an immediate sentence for the criminal offense.

Department of Corrections (DOC)
A department of state government that is responsible for the operation of state prisons.

Determinate Sentence
A form of sentencing that imposes a definite term for imprisonment with a maximum amount of time that can be served.

Direct Evidence
A form of evidence that establishes fact (e.g., eyewitness testimony, confession).

The procedure whereby prosecutors make available to the defense information, facts, documents and other materials about the case.

District Attorney
An attorney elected or appointed to a specified judicial district to serve as a prosecutor for the state in criminal cases.

A schedule of all proceedings and cases to be heard in a specific courtroom.

Docket Number
A number assigned by the court’s clerk to identify each case.

Ex parte
A motion, hearing or order requested by one party without notifying or serving the other party. 

A crime punishable by death or by imprisonment in a state penal institution. Felonies trials are heard in District Court.

Legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case before it, which depends on the type of case and how closely connected the parties are to the county where the court is located.

  • The geographic area over which the authority to interpret and apply the law extends (e.g., the court’s authority to decide cases, the prosecutor’s authority to issue criminal charges, etc.)
  • In delinquency and abuse/neglect cases, the court’s authority to enter orders affecting a youth and his/her parents or household.

Mens rea
The intention or knowledge of a particular crime statutorily required to convict a defendant.

A less serious criminal offense punishable by a sentence to the county jail.

Personal Recognizance Bond (PR Bond)
A form of bond for temporary release that doesn’t require a financial obligation on behalf of the defendant unless they fail to appear in court.

Plea Negotiation/Bargain
A negotiated agreement between the prosecutor and the defense counsel for the defendant to plead guilty or no-contest under certain terms and conditions. The agreement could include the defendant pleading to all pending charges with a sentence agreement, or pleading to less than all of his pending charges, or pleading to a less serious charge, or pleading guilty to one or more pending charges in exchange for dismissal of other unrelated charges. All plea agreements must be approved by the judge. Plea agreements are a means of arriving at a reasonable disposition without the necessity of a trial.

Preliminary Hearing
A hearing held in class felony cases to determine whether or not there is probable cause to proceed with the case. The prosecution must present testimonial evidence to show probable cause that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed it.

Preponderance of the Evidence
The burden of proof in civil cases and in some motions hearings in criminal cases. Evidence presented must show the fact sought to be proved is more probable than not.

Pre-Trial Conference
Meeting between the prosecutor, the defendant or his attorney and the court to resolve issues prior to trial so that the parties and the court will be better prepared for trial. The parties may discuss a possible resolution of a case without going to trial (i.e., plea bargain).

Prima facie
The burden of proof for evidence to be presented which is good and sufficient “on its face” to establish a given fact when not rebutted or contradicted.

Probable Cause
The burden of proof required for a law enforcement officer to arrest an individual. To the best of the officer’s knowledge of the facts and circumstances in the moment, an arrest can be made if a prudent person would believe that the suspect is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime.

Property Bond
A form of bond for temporary release that utilizes the defendant’s owned property – such as a home or real estate – as collateral to cover the bail amount. Property can be forfeited if the defendant doesn’t meet the conditions of the bond.

The district attorney and deputy district attorneys prosecute criminal cases for the People of the State of Colorado.

Public Defender
An attorney employed by the government to represent an accused person who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.

To send back to custody, send an accused back into custody by court order (as pending trial), turn a prisoner over for continued detention, send back a case to a lower court with instructions about further proceedings or return (a case or matter) from one court to another, especially to a lower court or from a court to an administrative agency.

After conviction, a defendant can be ordered to pay the victim for financial losses.

The judge’s decision after a plea or verdict of guilty as to what a defendant’s penalty will be, such as jail time, probation, or community service.

A written legal order directing a person to appear in court.

Surety Bond
A form of bond for temporary release posted by a professional bondsman after being paid a non-refundable percentage of the full bail amount by the defendant. 

The presentation of all the evidence against a defendant to a judge and/or jury in order to make a determination of guilty or not guilty. Evidence may also be presented by the defendant although not required.

Geographic location (e.g., city or county) where the crime occurred.

Person or entity who suffers direct or threatened physical, financial, or emotional harm as a result of the commission of a crime.

Voir dire
The structured process of selecting a jury for trial where attorneys for both parties question candidates about their life experiences and opinions.

The structured process of selecting a jury for trial where attorneys for both parties question candidates about their life experiences and opinions.

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