Criminal Justice Glossary:
Terms and definitions as used in early twenty-first-century criminal justice in the United States of America.

Buy 'The Body in Question: Exploring the Cutting Edge of Forensic Science'

Glossary: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.
Note: this site is not giving legal advice, simply organizing information from various Criminal Justice classes and texts.
If you need legal advice consult your lawyer.


A parent's desertion of his/her own child.

Active Crime Scene.
A crime scene that is still giving off evidence and has not yet been completely processed and cleaned. A single Officer-in-charge is responsible for coordinating investigation at the scene. Unauthorized people (including witnesses) must be excluded from an active crime scene.

Contrast with Passive Crime Scene.

Soapy appearance developed by a body in a hot, moist location.

Statement containing some of the information about the elements of a crime, but not a full confession.

Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Performs fingerprint classification and supports fingerprint identification.

Aggravated Assault.
An unlawful attack intended to inflict severe bodily injury upon another person. Also called Felonious Assault.

Algor Mortis.
The postmortem cooling process of the body. This can be helpful in homicide investigations.

Arch (fingerprint pattern).
The ridges of the arch enter the pattern on one side make a rise (usually due to branched ridges) in the the center, and leave on the other side. The arch has no delta and no core.

See also Fingerprint Classification.

The malicious, deliberate burning of a building or property.

The taking of a person into custody following the rules of law.

The brain and body tissues receive insufficient oxygen to support the red blood cells.

(1) Unlawfully threatening to harm another person, (2) actually harming another person, or (3) attempting to harm another person. Includes not only threats of bodily harm and attempts to cause bodily harm, but also (usually) battery. Battery.
Simple assault (usually a misdemeanor):
Aggravated Assault (usually a felony).

In some specific instances, law enforcement officers, teachers, and people operating public conveyances can legally use reasonable physical force.


Bait Money.
Currency with recorded serial numbers that is available to add to the loot taken in a robbery. It is often placed at a teller position in a bank.

Bank Robbery.
Comes under the jurisdiction of the F.B.I.

One of the plotting methods for the crime scene. Establishes a straight baseline between two fixed points. Measurements are taken at right angles from the baseline.

Hitting or striking another person. The carrying out of threats of violence. A form of assault.

Battered-woman syndrome.
Under duress and feeling trapped in a cycle of violence, a battered woman may lash out lethally at her tormentor.

Marriage of two people when one or both of them are already married.

Blind Reporting.
Lets sexual assault victims retain anonymity and guarantees their confidentiality when they share information with law enforcement.

The inside diameter of a weapon's barrel, measuring between two opposing ridges or lands. See also caliber.

Elements: It is not necessary for force to have been used: the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports define burglary as "unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft, even though no force was used to gain entry".
Simply breaking into a structure at night is often classified as burglary.
Two basic types, depending on the structure entered: Unlike robbery (a crime against person), burglary is a crime against property.
Unlike larceny, burglary involves illegal entry of a building.
The national burglary clearance rate is only 14%; better preliminary investigations could improve this.


Cadaveric Spasm.
A spasm condition in specific muscle groups (rather than the entire body) after death.

The diameter of the bullet (to be used with a specific weapon). See also bore.

Car Jacking.
A fairly new category of robbery, this is the taking of a motor vehicle from a person by (the threat of) force.

Carroll Decision.
Vehicles may be searched without a warrant if See also Chimel Decision and Quarles Decision.

Chain of Evidence.
Documentation of what happened to the evidence from when it was discovered until when it is presented in court.

Features of a piece of evidence can be:

Child Molestation.
Usually a felony. Violation of a child by indecent exposure, incest, rape, (which is
statutory rape when it involves a child, male or female, of age under (usually) 14 years).

Chimel Decision.
Search incidental to lawful arrest must be made simultaneously with arrest. See also Carroll Decision and Quarles Decision.

Close Tail (or 'tight tail').
Moving surveillance that keeps the subject constantly in view.

Cognitive Interview.
Interviewing technique that helps victims or witnesses put themselves in their mind at the scene of the crime.

Cold crime scene.
A crime scene that may have been tampered with. Compare with a Hot Crime Scene.

Commercial Robbery.
A robbery that is often committed in commercial property.

Compass Point.
One of the plotting methods for the crime scene. Uses a protractor to measure the angle at the intersection of two lines.

Competent Photograph.
Represents accurately what it purports to represent, is properly marked with identification, is placed in the chain of evidence, and is secured until presented in court.

Computer Crime.
The alteration, addition, deletion, theft of information from a computer, cyberspace, or a computer network.

Statement that contains information about the elements of a crime and that is provided and attested to by a person involved in committing the crime. Can be oral or written. Contrast with admission.

Confidence Game.
Taking advantage of someone after making them confident that you can help them take advantage of someone else, often through a get-rich-quick scheme. The swindler obtains money or property by a trick that takes advantage of a victim's trust in the swindler.

Confidence games are classified as

Core (fingerprint pattern).
The center of the loop fingerprint pattern.

See also Fingerprint Classification.

Corpus delicti ([figurative] 'body of crime').
From Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed.) via Wikipedia: "the fact of a crime having been actually committed." Before a person can be convicted of committing a crime, it must be proved that crime has occurred.

An action or an omission that is in violation of penal law and punishable by fine, imprisonment, or death. State and federal statutes as well as local ordinances define crimes and penalties. Usually they involve an offender, a victim, state agencies of law enforcement, and the public.

Criminal Intent.
When a person does an unlawful act that they know to be illegal.

Criminal Investigation.
Criminal Investigation is the process of searching for and collecting all possible relevant facts to determine the truth of a crime: what happened, where, when, and how; and who is responsible.
Usually initiated by an officer's personal observation or by information from a citizen.
Follows a reconstruction process of deductive reasoning based on specific evidence to prove that a suspect is guilty (or innocent) of an offense.

Criminal Statute.
A legislative act concerning a crime and its punishment. Contrast with ordinance.

That portion of a residence not open to the public. Sidewalks and alleys are open to the public. But the curtilage is reserved for private use by the property owner or the family.

Custodial Arrest.
A law officer, having decided that a suspect is not free to leave, deprives the suspect of liberty to leave custody.

Custodial Interrogation.
Interrogation by law enforcement officers of a person that has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of freedom in a significant way. Requires that the Miranda warning be given.

An investigator in computer forensics.

A crime committed by using a computer.


The science Of fingerprint identification. One of the best sets of illustrated web pages on this topic is at the informal Australia (New South Wales) police web site.

An individual charged and brought to trial. Before being charged, an individual is usually a suspect.

Delta (fingerprint pattern).
The area of a fingerprint pattern where there is a dividing (or triangulation) of the ridges.

See also Fingerprint Classification.

Direct Question.
A focused question with little chance of misinterpretation. The expected answer is specific and brief. Compare with Indirect Question.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
The organic substance in the nucleus of cells that provides the genetic code for individual characteristics.

Domestic Violence.
A group of behaviors (physical, sexual, emotional, and/or economic abuse) over an intimate partner.

Drivers License Guide.
An aid to determining whether or not a driver's license is authentic.

Dye Pack.
A bundle of currency that contains tear gas and a colored dye. During a robbery, when the robber takes such a bundle across an electromagnetic field in the facility, the tear gas container explodes, a cloud of colored smoke is emitted, and the money is stained with brightly colored dye.


Elements of a Crime.
Those conditions that must be proven to exist for an act to be classified as a particular crime. Even if a suspect is known or has confessed, elements of a crime must still be proved.

Elder Abuse.
Physical or mental mistreatment, exploitation, or abuse of the elderly. It can include fraud, assault, battery, murder, etc.

Elements of the crime.
The set of specific conditions that must occur for an act to be called a specific kind of crime.

Elimination Prints.
Fingerprints of all individuals that are not suspects and whose prints are likely to be found at the crime scene.

The fraudulent appropriation of property by the person to whom it was entrusted.

Emotional Abuse.
Causing fear or feelings of unworthiness in others, especially the weaker. Methods include ignoring or constantly belittling them.

Tricking someone into committing a crime that they would otherwise normally not commit.

Data. Judgments and conclusions can be based upon it. Includes relevant evidence. Also:

Exceptional Force.
More than ordinary force.

Exclusionary Rule.
Courts may not accept evidence obtained by unreasonable search and seizure, no matter how relevant to a case. However, see the exception, the Inevitable-Discovery Doctrine.

A person that exposes him/herself.

Using people illegally or taking unfair advantage of them.


A major crime that usually carries a penalty of imprisonment of over one year in a state penitentiary or death. Examples are: aggravated assault, homicide, and robbery. More serious than a misdemeanor.

Field Identification.
Identification of a suspect by a victim of a crime or a witness to a crime within minutes of a crime. Also known as on-the-scene or show-up identification.

A Supreme Court case (United States v. Ash, Jr.) established that a suspect does not have the right to have counsel present at field identification.

New Mobile Identification Technology reported that the length of time it takes to solve a crime is strongly correlated with the length of time it takes for a positive identification to be established.

Field Interview.
Spontaneous questioning at the crime scene.

Everyone has unique and permanent fingerprints, including identical twins (with identical DNA). Once several finger prints are classified as similar, they are analyzed by visual comparison in fingerprint identification.

Fingerprint Classification.
Classification of fingerprints is done by pattern matching, the ridge characteristics of fingerprints. Dactyloscopy is the science of fingerprinting. A great set of illustrated fingerprint web pages are at the informal Australia (New South Wales) police web site.

There are three fingerprint classification patterns:

Fingerprint loops are: Anything else is an accidental.

By studying the details of fingerprint friction ridges, one can identify up to 100 or more minutiae.

Such classification gives a set of fingerprints that are similar to varying degrees. This is usually done by computer.

These sets of similar prints are then analyzed by fingerprint identification.

Fingerprint Identification.
Once several finger prints are classified as similar, they are analyzed by visual comparison.

A real estate transaction where a middleman buys a property (perhaps just below its estimated market value), then resells it (even within minutes) for a greatly increased price.

Forensic Anthropology.
Forensics using techniques developed through research by physical anthropologists and archaeologists.

Forensic Entomology.
The study of insects found on a dead body or at the scene of a death.

Forensic Science.
The applied science that uses techniques and technologies of physics, chemistry, and biology to examining physical evidence left at a crime scene. Chemical tests can be made on hair, blood, dirt, cloth fibers, etc. Tools include DNA testing, microscopy, and spectroscopic analysis. A forensic scientist may study:

In law, the making or alteration of the name or amount on a check or document with the fraudulent intent.

Found property.
The taking of found property with the intent to keep or sell is a crime in most States. While the finder has 'possession', it is not legal possession. A reasonable effort must be made to find the owner, who must pay the costs of the effort before receiving the property. State Law may require a specified time to elapse while appropriate effort is made.

Fourth Amendment
Forbids unreasonable search and seizure.

Intentional deception in order to cause a person to give up property or a lawful right.

Fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree Doctrine.
Illegally obtained evidence must be excluded from trial. See the exception, the Inevitable-Discovery Doctrine.


Good Faith Doctrine.
Allows that illegally obtained evidence may be admissible if the police can be shown to have been unaware they were violating a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights.

Grand Larceny.
Larceny where the value of the taken personal goods or property is above a specific amount (specified in State law); a felony.

Home Invasion.
A new type residential robbery, often committed in private homes,

A death in which another individual is the direct or indirect cause of the death.

Hostage Situation.
Priorities are to preserve life, capture the hostage takers, and recover/protect property. Negotiable items are food and drink. Non-negotiable items include punishments (including sentences up to the death penalty) and transportation (generally not negotiable because it is difficult to monitor and control).

Hot Crime Scene.
An undisturbed crime scene. Compare with a Cold crime scene.


From Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATM) in early 1990s.

Sexual intercourse with a person that is known to have nearer kinship than first cousin. In some states this is a crime not only for biological but also adopted relationships.

Indirect Question.
A vague question that skirts the issue and might be misinterpreted. Should be used little, unless one needs an unexpected answer that might lead in a new direction. Compare with Direct Question.

Inevitable-Discovery Doctrine.
Illegally obtained evidence may still be used if it can be shown that it would most likely have been discovered legally eventually. This is an exception to the fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree Doctrine.

A process of reasoning by which a fact may be deduced.

An individual that is not a complainant, witness, victim, or suspect, and that can provide information related to a case or a suspect.

Questioning of an unwilling person (could be a relative or friend or suspect or even a witness) that is reluctant to give you information and that is suspected of direct or indirect involvement in the crime being investigated. Contrast with interview.

Talk to an unwilling person (could be a relative or friend or suspect or even a witness) that is reluctant to give you information. Contrast with interrogate.

Talk to a willing person that wants to give you information. Contrast with interrogate.

Observe and study closely; inquire systematically in a search for the truth. Make a patient, careful, step-by-step inquiry, observation, or examination; also a recording of evidence or a legal inquiry.

Involuntary Manslaughter.
Accidental homicide resulting from extreme negligence.


Justifiable Homicide.
Limited to the killing of a felon:
  1. by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty. and
  2. by a private citizen during the commission (by the felon) of a felony.



Elements: Unlike robbery, larceny does not use force or threat.
Unlike burglary, larceny does not involve illegal entry of a building.
Most common types of larceny are (1) from motor vehicles; (2) shop lifting; (3) from buildings; (4) motor vehicle accessories.

Leading Question.
A question that has the answer in the question. e.g. "Were his eyes blue?" Avoid using these in an interview.

Lineup Identification.
When the suspect is in custody, having victims or witnesses pick out who they belive is the suspect from among five (or more) individuals physically presented before them.

Loop (fingerprint pattern).
The ridges of the loop enter from the ulnar (little finger) or radius (thumb) side, re-curve and [tend to] leave the same side they entered. The loop has a single delta. Its center is the core.

See also Fingerprint Classification.


Photographic enlargement that show details of evidence (fingerprints, tool marks, etc.). Contrast with microphotography.

Neglect, emotional abuse, medical neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and elder abuse.

Unlawful killing of another person, with no prior malice. Two types:

Material Evidence.
Evidence that relates to a specific case and subject. Compare with relevant evidence.

Material Photograph.
A photograph that relates to a specific case and subject.

Memory Decay.
Memories decay with time:
In 2 days -20%
In 4 days -40%
In 9 days -60%
In 30 days -74%

Minimize the resulting decay effects and memory error by an interview or interrogation immediately after an event. Refresh information within 2 days and the loss is reduced.

Memory Error.
Memory of an event can be in error because of:
  1. Weakness of sensory perception (eyesight, hearing).
  2. Location at time of incident.
  3. Memory decay.
  4. Retroactive inhibition.
  5. Rationalization.

MERMER (Memory and Encoding-Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Response).
A brain-wave response elicited when the brain processes significant information it recognizes. Sometimes used to determine if a suspect has seen the crime scene before. The basis of an experimental method called Brain Fingerprinting.

Photographs taken through a microscope of minute evidence (e.g., hair, fiber, etc.). Contrast with macrophotography.

Miranda Warning.
Given to a suspect once, usually just before their first Custodial Interrogation. Informs of: Warns a suspect that anything said can be used against the suspect in court. Does not have to be given before a field interview or a regular interview.

An offense that is less serious than a felony. A minor crime that usually carries a penalty of a fine or a short sentence (no more than one year) in a county or municipal jail. Examples are: pilferage, and shoplifting.

Modus Operandi (MO).
Characteristic method used by a criminal for a particular type of crime.

Moving Surveillance (or 'tailing').
Following people or vehicles on foot or in a vehicle to observe their behavior, companions, destinations, etc.

The most severe statutory crime, carrying a penalty of life imprisonment or (in some States and at some times) death. Unlawful killing of another person, with prior malice. Three types:


Failure to properly care for a child. Also failure to care for a property or one's actions.

No-Knock Warrant.
This may be issued when there is concern that evidence might be easily destroyed, or that there are explosives or other specific dangers to the officers.

Nonverbal Communication.
The messages conveyed physically, particularly by posture and gesture, but also by distance, dress, eye contact, mannerisms, rate of speech, and tone of voice. Nonverbal communication are usually more spontaneous than verbal communications, and therefore indicate the truth or falsehood of what is said in field interview, regular interview, or interrogation,


Open Tail.
Surveillance in which no extraordinary means are used to avoid detection.

A personal belief. Not necessarily the truth.

Act of the legislative body of a municipality relating to all the rules (including for misdemeanors) that govern it. Contrast with criminal statute.


Parallel Proceedings.
The pursuit of civil and criminal redress concurrently.

Passive Crime Scene.
Contrast with Active Crime Scene.

Petty Larceny.
Larceny where the value of the taken personal goods or property is less than a specific amount (specified in State law); a misdemeanor.

A person sexually attracted to young children.


Physical Abuse.
Physical harm including beating, whipping, and burning.


Plain-view Evidence.
Evidence that is not concealed and visible to an officer engaged in a lawful activity.

Plea Bargaining .
A process whereby the accused and the prosecutor reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion to the case, subject to court approval. Usually, the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense in return for a lighter sentence than if they had been tried and convicted of a creater offense.

Plotting Methods for the Crime Scene.

Postmortem Lividity.
Dark blue or purple discoloration that the body develops when the heart stops beating at death.

Presumptive Evidence.
Strong presumptive evidence provides a reasonable basis for belief.

Prima Facie ('at first sight').
Evidence that is sufficient (if not rebutted) to prove a proposition or fact. In a law suit, prima facie evidence must be presented on every required element; otherwise the claim may be dismissed.

Probable Cause.
Evidence of a state of facts that warrants the belief by a reasonable person that a crime has been committed and/or a certain person is guilty. Required for a search to be authorized and conducted.

Profiling (or 'criminal profiling' or 'psychological profiling').
Method of narrowing the field of suspects by identifying the individual's likely mental, emotional, psychological, and even physical characteristics.

Public Safety Exception.
Law officers may interrogate a suspect without first giving the Miranda Warning if a public threat exists that they believe may be removed or reduced by having the suspect talk.


Quarles Decision.
Warrentless search is justified only in emergencies (in absence of arrest or consent. See also Carroll Decision and Chimel Decision.


A planned, organized invasion by law officers, using the element of surprise, to recover stolen property, seize evidence, or arrest a suspect.

Sexual intercourse with a person against their will.

Also called 'the theory of closure'. The mind does not like incomplete packages. So it is likely to complete something that is unresolved, and soon believe that invention is true. Minimize this creation of memory error by an interview or interrogation immediately after an event.

One of the plotting methods for the crime scene. If two adjacent intersecting walls of a room are at right angles, locations are plotted by their distances measured at right angles from each wall.

Relevant evidence
Evidence that helps explain testimony. Compare with material evidence.

relevant photograph.
Helps to explain testimony.

Reluctance to talk.
Can be due to:
  1. Fear of self-involvement
  2. Ignorance of the criminal justice system.
  3. Inconvenience.
  4. Distrust of police.
  5. Association with or sympathy for the suspect.
  6. Fear of reprisal.

Remote Data Terminal.
A hand-held device captures fingerprints and photo images at the crime scene. Transmits images through the law enforcement communications network to an AFIS data base and to the FBI's NCIC 2000 database.

Res Gestae statement.
A spontaneous response at (or shortly after) the time of a crime and closely related to actions in the crime. Considered more truthful than a later (and possibly prepared) response.

Residential Robbery.
A robbery that is often committed in private homes, hotel and motel rooms, garages, and elevators.

Retroactive inhibition.

Ridge (in fingerprints).
fingerprint classification studies the patterns of the friction ridges of a fingerprint. Up to about 100 identification points are found per print, each with one of three basic ridge characteristics: Composite ridge characteristics include:

Rigor mortis.
Stiffening of parts of the body after death (attributed to enzyme breakdown).

Weaponry (pistols, revolvers, automatic weapons, etc.) are frequently used in robberies. Unlike larceny, robbery uses force or threat.

Robberies are classified as:

The most frequent victims are convenience stores, drug houses, fast-food place, gambling houses, liquor stores, jewelry stores, motels, and private residences.

Challenges of investigating robberies are:

Robbers usually:

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the use of violence during robberies increased during the 10 years around the turn of the millennium.

Routine-Activity Theories
The theory that crime results from the convergence of these three elements:


A semi-portable strongbox with a combination lock. Broken into by: go over or look through for the purpose of finding something is:

Look through something or go over an area, for the purpose of finding something.

Search Patterns.
Systematic approaches to look for evidence at a crime scene; recommended ones are:

Serial Murder.
Killing more than two separate people with a 'cooling off' period between the each killing.

Taking items from retail stores without paying.

Unexplained or unauthorized reduction of inventory from a retail establishment.

Unauthorized switch of a long-distance carrier; in the early 21st century, this is the most common and fastest growing category of complaints to the FCC.

Switching carriers on a specific call, from the long-distance carrier to an unauthorized carrier.

Burglary where a window is broken in order to steal merchandise. Also called hit-and-run.

Factors crucial to resolving an investigation and to consider when deciding whether to investigate a crime.

Someone that deliberately and repeatedly attempts to contact, follow, or in any other way harass or intimidate another person. The first U.S.A. anti-stalking laws were passed in 1990 in California. Types of stalking:

A legal narrative description (from a suspect, witness, complainant, etc.) of events related to a crime.

Statutory Rape.
Sexual intercourse with a minor, male or female, of age under (usually) 14 years, whether with their consent or against their will.

Street Robbery.
A robbery that is often committed on public streets and sidewalks, in alleys, and in parking lots.

Stockholm Syndrome.
Psychologically, where a hostage sympathizes with their hostage takers and fears the rescuers (such as the military and the police) more than the captors.

Covert observation of people, places, or objects.

An individual considered to be directly or indirectly connected with a crime (no matter whether by physical act or by planning or by supervising). Compare with a defendant (after a suspect is charged and brought to trial).

A suspect is developed through:



The study of poisons.

Trace Evidence.
Evidence that is barely visible. Includes fingerprints as well as small particles of glass or dirt.

One of the plotting methods for the crime scene. Make straight-line measurements from two fixed objects to the location of the evidence, creating a triangle. The evidence is in the angle formed by the two straight lines, at the distance that you measured from each fixed point.

What actually happened. May be hard to discover from a witness due to:
  1. Memory error.
  2. Predisposition: witness may sympathize with victim or suspect, and alter story.
  3. Reluctance to talk.


The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program is a U.S.A.-wide voluntary cooperation by over 16,000 city, county, and state law enforcement agencies to report data on crimes brought to their attention. This covers 95% of the U.S.A.'s population.


A stationary security chamber of reinforced concrete, often steel-lined, with a combination lock.

Vehicle Driver Robbery.
A robbery of a vehicle driver.

An individual injured by a crime.

Voluntary Manslaughter.
Intentionally causing the death of another person in the heat of passion that is adequately provoked by words or deeds.

Peeping in other people's windows. A.k.a. 'Peeping Tom'.


An individual that saw a crime or some part of it being committed or who has relevant information.

Whorl (fingerprint pattern).
The ridges of the whorl are usually circular. The whorl has two (and rarely more) deltas.

See also Fingerprint Classification.




← \u2190 ↑ \u2191 → \u2192 ↓ \u2193
↔ \u2194 ↕ \u2195
British pound sign £ '\u20a4'
degree ° '\u00b0'
division ÷ '\u00f7',
female ♀ '\u2640',
heart ♥ '\u2665'
infinity ∞ '\u221e'
integral ∫ '\u222b'
male ♂ '\u2642'
Pi Π '\u03a0'
registered trade mark ® '\u00ae',
telephone ☎ '\u260e'
trademark ™ '\u2122'

Site Meter [Thanks for visiting.]