The American legal system is complicated.
Irrespective of what American legal dramas like Suits, Law and Order, and The Practice tell you, there is nothing romantic about courtrooms, lawyers, and trials.
For newcomers to the U.S., navigating the legal alleyway is much more confusing, because of the legal mumbo-jumbo. If you don’t know what it means, you won’t know what to do about it.
Want to actually understand American laws, legalese (legal language), the legal system, and how justice is served? You’d probably have to get a degree in law for that.
Need to file a lawsuit or defend yourself in one? Hire an attorney.
Want to understand what basic legal terms mean so that newspaper articles make sense to you, and you don’t make a legal faux pas in conversations? Here’s the quick legal terms dictionaryyou need.
This guide includes legal words and phrases that are often confused or misused interchangeably, along with their correct usage.
Legal Terms and Definitions:
1. Robbery and Burglary
Someone broke into your house while you were away. Your valuables are missing. You dial 911 and tell them you’ve been robbed. That’s incorrect. Your house has been burglarized.
Robbery is when someone takes something from you using force, intimidation, or threatening the use of force.
You are walking down the street; someone pulls out a knife, and you are forced to give your phone to them. That’s robbery.
When someone enters a property without permission with an intention to steal or commit another crime, that’s burglary.
2. Assault and Battery
When someone threatens you with harm, that is assault. The threat could be real or implied.
If someone says, “I’ll break your bones if you don’t give me that purse right away,” they’ll be charged with assault. But, if they actually proceed to break someone’s bones, that’s battery. It involves physical contact of insulting or provoking nature.
Usually, assault is followed by battery, but either can be committed without another.
Note: Though ‘bodily harm’ is an important factor in battery, just contact (like poking someone in the chest with your finger) can be enough to classify the act as battery.
3. Lynch and Lynch Law
Lynch is a verb used to describe the act of killing someone who is thought to be guilty of a crime, usually by hanging, and without trial in court. The act is usually performed by a crowd.
Lynch law means punishing someone with the death penalty for presumed crime or offense without the due process of law.
The difference between lynching and lynch law lies in the fact that the former is without trial.
4. American vs. British Moot
The word ‘moot’ comes into American English from its British counterpart. But, based on which country you are in, it has come to mean different things.
In British law, a moot point is the one that is still debatable. For some people, the Earth being round is a moot point.
In American law, however, it refers to a point where any further proceedings have no practical significance. Like explaining to some people that the Earth is not flat is often a moot point.
5. Forego and Forgo
Forgo means ‘to go without.’ This is when you willingly give up something pleasant or of value.
For example, Sam will forgo his claim on the property if Steve gives him their father’s car.
Forego also often means the same thing. However, it can also sometimes mean that one thing precedes another. While forego is a rarely used term, foregoneconclusion is a common one.
It means a conclusion that precedes an argument or examination. It is also used to refer to something that is almost inevitable.
Example: The judge had already made up his mind. His conviction was a foregone conclusion.
6. Imply and Infer
Though often used interchangeably, imply and infer mean different things. The difference becomes more important in legal contexts.
Imply is when you hint towards something without explicitly stating it. Your statement in the court of law could imply that you were involved in unlawful activity.
However, infer refers to the other side of things. The judge could infer or conclude from your way of talking that you are under pressure to say so.
7. Proscribe and Prescribe
Proscribe is a law-related term used to mean to forbid or condemn something as unlawful or harmful. You’ll probably hear the term in the context of proscribed actions in terms of business and investment.
Prescribing, however, means to order or demand something. It is most commonly used in the context of a doctor prescribing you medicines.
In essence, when something is prescribed, you should do that. When something is proscribed, you shouldn’t.
8. Prosecute and Persecute
To prosecute someone means starting legal proceedings against them.
Persecute, on the other hand, means the infliction of harm or suffering on someone due to their race, religion, caste, gender, etc.
You might feel wrongly persecuted during your prosecution.
9. Crime, Sin, and Tort
While all these terms are often used interchangeably, they mean different things. In the legal context, these need to be used and understood properly.
Crime: Anything that is against the law that is penalized for. Penalty for the action being the differentiating factor here.
Sin: Something that is against religious law.
For example, the consumption of alcohol might be a sin in some religions. But, if you are over 21 years of age, it is not a crime in America and thus, not punishable.
Tort: Encroachment on someone’s personal rights is tort. It can be due to negligence or intentional, but in all cases causes harm to a person or their property. Tort differs from crime in the sense that for tort cases, compensation is sought. Punishment is awarded for crimes.
Someone who commits a crime is called a criminal. The one who commits a tort is called a tortfeasor.
If you get hurt by someone’s pet, it is an unintentionaltort, the case can be taken to a civil court and you could be awarded compensation for the damages.
However, if a drunk driver hits you with their vehicle causing you injuries, and you file a lawsuit for compensation, it involves both crime and tort. The crime is drinking and driving, and the tort is the injury inflicted upon you.
10. Infraction, Misdemeanor, and Felony
In the U.S., crimes are divided into different types and categories. The three most important categories include:
Infraction: These are less serious crimes, which usually don’t involve jail time. A fine usually suffices.
Traffic tickets are the most common type of infraction. Trespassing, littering, and disturbing the peace are also classified as infractions.
Misdemeanor: These are crimes that are more serious than infractions, and may carry a penalty or jail term. However, the jail term is under a year and has to be served in county jail.
Vandalism, shoplifting, domestic violence, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana, and driving under the influence (DUI) are misdemeanors.
Felony: These are the most severe types of crimes. Federal law classifies them as those with a jail time of over a year.
However, the U.S. is less strict about the definition, with some states not classifying crimes at all, and others using the term felony, but not defining it.
Jail times for felonies are to be served in state or federal prison. Serious felonies can also result in the death penalty.
Kidnapping, robbery, embezzlement, carjacking, sexual battery, homicide, or murder are examples of a felony.
Note: The types of crimes discussed above also have classes depending on the duration or extent of fines and jail time.
11. Confession and Admission
A confession is the acceptance of guilt by the accused. It is a term often used in criminal cases. For example, if someone accepts that they are guilty of battery, it is called a confession.
Admission, however, means that the party is accepting that some facts inconsistent with their claim in the matter are true. Admissions are usually a part of civil cases, and in criminal cases usually pertain to matters without criminal intent.
Also, before the beginning of the lawsuit, admissions are requested from both parties to ensure the correctness of the facts of the trial, or genuineness of the documents.
With that, you should now be equipped enough to understand the basics of American law. Newspaper articles will make more sense now, you’ll be better able to understand courtroom dramas, and you will not accidentally commit confusion-induced offenses.
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