The terms and definitions on this page are relevant to criminal cases in the State of Michigan, United States of America, unless noted otherwise. Criminal laws and procedures in other states and countries may be very different.

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The legal system can be filled with confusing phrases and terms. This list should help you to understand that system a little better.

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Capital Offense

  • A crime punishable by death. (Michigan does not have a death penalty.)

Carrying a Concealed Weapon

Crime that prohibits:

  • Carrying a pistol or other firearm or dangerous weapon (e.g., dagger, dirk, razor, stiletto, or knife having a blade over 3 inches in length) with an intent to use the same unlawfully against the person of another [MCL 750.226];
  • Carrying a dagger, dirk, stiletto, double-edged non-folding stabbing instrument of any length, or any other dangerous weapon (except a hunting knife adapted and carried as such), concealed on or about his/her person, or whether concealed or otherwise in any vehicle operated or occupied by the person, except in his or her dwelling house, place of business or on other land possessed by the person [MCL 750.227];
  • Carrying a pistol in a place or manner inconsistent with a license or permit issued pursuant to 1927 PA 372.
  • Penalty: Felony - up to 5 years or $2,500 fine.
  • Unless licensed to carry a firearm, a person may not carry a concealed weapon for "self-defense".


Published decisions issued by appellate courts. The legal principals announced in the decisions are binding authority for lower courts.


  • The number of cases a judge handles in a specific time period.


  • See Carrying a Concealed Weapon.

Challenges (Jury Selection)

  • A method for striking a prospective juror. The Michigan Court Rules allow two types of juror challenges: for cause (unlimited number; when the juror is shown to be biased for or against a party, is related to a trial participant, etc.) and peremptory (limited number depending on the severity of the crime on trial). No reason need be announced for a peremptory challenge, although a purely racially-based challenge is not permitted.


  • Judge's office.

Charge to the Jury

  • A judge's instructions to a jury. They contain information on the laws relating to the case, definitions of legal terms, and explanations of procedures relevant to the jury's duties.

Chief Judge

  • In courts with two or more judges, one judge is selected as the chief judge, who has responsibilities as a court administrator, in addition to his/her court docket.

 Child Abuse [MCL 750.136b; MSA 28.331(2)]

  • Conduct toward an unemancipated child under 18 years of age by the parent, guardian or other person who cares for, has custody of or authority over the child. There are four degrees of child abuse:
  • First Degree (felony - up to 15 years in prison) occurs when the defendant knowingly or intentionally causes serious physical harm (i.e., substantial physical disfigurement or impairment of a body organ or limb) or serious mental harm to a child.
  • Second Degree (felony - up to 4 years in prison) occurs when the defendant willfully abandons the child, fails to provide food, clothing or shelter necessary for the child's welfare, or commits a reckless act which results in serious physical/mental harm.
  • Third Degree (high court misdemeanor - up to 2 years in prison) occurs when the defendant knowingly or intentionally causes some physical harm to the child.
  • Fourth Degree (misdemeanor - up to 1 year in jail) occurs when the defendant abandons the child, or willfully fails to provide food, clothing or shelter necessary for the child's welfare, or commits a reckless act, which results in some physical harm to the child.
  • Note: A defendant may raise a defense that his/her forceful actions were reasonable "parental discipline".

Child Sexually Abusive Material  [1998 PA 35; MCL 750.145c]

  • A developed or undeveloped photograph, film, slide, electronic visual image, computer diskette, or sound recording of a child engaging in a listed sexual act; a book, magazine, or other visual or print medium containing such a photograph, film, slide, electronic visual image, or sound recording; or any reproduction, copy, or print of such a photograph, film, slide, electronic visual image, book, magazine, other visual or print medium, or sound recording.
  • A listed sexual act means sexual intercourse, erotic fondling, sadomasochistic abuse, masturbation, passive sexual involvement, sexual excitement, or erotic nudity.

Circuit Court

  • Michigan's highest level trial court, with the broadest range of powers (including hearing appeals from District Court). Circuit Court has three divisions:
  • Criminal (the trial court for all felony crimes)
  • Civil (civil law suits over $25,000, or seeking injunctions or other equitable relief), and
  • Family (every aspect of family law, including divorce, child custody, parenting time/visitation, paternity, adoption, child & spousal support, domestic violence, PPO's, juvenile delinquency, child protection proceedings [parental neglect or abuse], as well as emancipation of minors, name changes, and waiver of parental consent to abortions).
  • The Friend of the Court office is a division of the Circuit Court.
  • Michigan has 57 Circuits, covering all 83 counties. Circuit Court judges are elected on a non-partisan ballot to six-year terms.

Circuit Court Misdemeanor

  • An offense designated by the legislature as a misdemeanor, but punishable by more than one year in jail. It is processed in circuit court like a felony.

Circumstantial Evidence

  • Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but does not directly prove it. For example, circumstantial evidence of embezzlement includes proof that the defendant-employee made several big-ticket purchases in cash around the time of the alleged embezzlement.  [See also direct evidence.]

Civil Case

  • A case between private litigants concerning personal wrongs, generally where the losing party must compensate the prevailing party with money or other property. Examples of civil cases include divorces, personal injury, landlord-tenant, small claims and contract or property disputes. A civil plaintiff may be also be asking the court to tell the defendant to stop some behavior or to do a specific thing.

Civil Infraction

  • A non-criminal violation of a law prosecuted by the State or a local government unit. A person cannot be sent to jail for a civil infraction. The most common example is a traffic citation, like speeding. The penalty for a civil infraction is payment of fines, costs, and fees. For a traffic civil infraction, points may be added to the driving record. A person can be found responsible for a civil infraction in one of four ways:
  • By failing to respond to the citation on time; a default judgment will be entered; in most cases, the person's driver's license will be suspended until the fines & costs + a surcharge are paid;
  • By admitting responsibility for the violation and paying the amount indicated on the ticket;
  • After an informal hearing;
  • After a formal hearing.

Cobbs Plea

  • Based on People v Cobbs, 443 Mich 276 (1993).
  • A "Cobbs plea" allows a defendant to enter a conditional guilty plea which can be withdrawn if a judge's eventual sentence falls outside sentencing terms specified by the judge before the plea was tendered.
  • Normally, defendants plead guilty without any legal expectation of a specific sentence, and judges are not bound by a sentencing agreement between the parties. But in "Cobbs agreements", the judge is asked to advise the parties before the plea is entered what an appropriate sentence range would be (based on case facts and the defendant's criminal history known to the judge at that time). The judge announces a sentencing 'preview', but the prosecutor is not a party to the terms of this possible sentence. If the defendant is induced to plead by this expected sentence, he may withdraw his plea if he does not receive that sentence.
  • See also Killebrew Plea.

Common Law

  • A body of legal principles which derives its authority solely from usages and customs of ancient times, or from the judgments and decrees of courts recognizing, affirming, and enforcing such usages and customs; particularly the ancient unwritten law of England. Common law is to be distinguished from "statutory law", which is enacted by a legislative body such as Congress or a state legislature.


  • The document on which criminal misdemeanors are charged in District Court, as well as the initial charging document for felonies.

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.  [See also consecutive sentence.]

Concurring Opinion

  • An opinion written by an appellate judge who agrees with the decision reached in the case, but would base the decision on different reasons than those expressed by the majority of judges.
  • See also Dissenting Opinion and Majority Opinion.

Consecutive Sentence

  • Upon conviction for multiple crimes, criminal sentences that must be served one after the other, rather than at the same time. Consecutive sentences may only be imposed if there is specific statutory authority to do so. In some circumstances, consecutive sentences may be imposed within the judge's discretion (e.g., when a person is convicted of a new offense committed while on parole status); in other circumstances, consecutive sentences are mandatory (e.g., convictions for felony firearm + another offense).
  • See also concurrent sentence.

Consent, Age of

  • In Michigan, a minor has the legal capacity to consent to sexual activity at age 16. [See Criminal Sexual Conduct.]

Consent Calendar

  • An informal probation in some juvenile delinquency cases, usually for 1st-time misdemeanor offenders. If all probation terms are completed, the case is dismissed; if not, the court can transfer the case to the formal calendar for a pre-trial conference, formal plea, trial, etc. In victim rights cases, the court must notify the prosecutor if consent calendar may be approved so the victim can be consulted and the prosecutor can advise the court if he approves. Consent calendar can be granted over a prosecutor's and/or victim's objection.

Conspiracy [MCL 750.157a CJI2d 10.1-10.5]

  • An agreement, express or implied, between two or more people to do an illegal act or to commit a legal act in an illegal manner.
  • See Wharton's Rule.


  • Goods barred by law (e.g., specific weapons, or drugs prohibited by law, etc.).


  • A judge or jury's decision that the accused person is guilty of the crime.

Corpus Delicti

  • "Body of the crime" (Latin). The objective proof that a crime has been committed.
  • A confession is not admissible if the "corpus" of the crime cannot be proven.

Corroborating Evidence

  • Supplementary evidence that supports or confirms the initial evidence. A victim's or witness' version of events does not have to be backed up by corroborating evidence.


  • A government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs." Courts and judges are part of the Judicial Branch of government.

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, the judge need not appoint an attorney.
  • See also Guardian ad Litem.

Court of Appeals

  • An "intermediate" appellate court between the Supreme Court and the Michigan trial courts. Final decisions from a Circuit or Probate court hearing may be appealed to the Court of Appeals. Hearings are held in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Marquette before a panel of three Court of Appeals judges. At least two of the three judges must agree on the ruling. The panels are frequently rotated so that a variety of judicial opinions are considered. The decision of the panel is final, except for those cases which the Supreme Court reviews.
  • Court of Appeals judges are elected for 6-year terms.

Court of Claims

  • A specialized court that handles only claims over $1,000 filed against the State of Michigan or one of its departments. (Claims for less than $1,000 should be filed with the State Administrative Board.) The Court of Claims is part of the 30th Circuit Court in Ingham County. All trials heard by the Court of Claims are heard by a judge, not a jury.

Court Reporter/Recorder

  • A person who makes a word-for-word record (either through tenography/short-hand or audio/video recording) of what is said in court, and can produce a transcript of the proceedings upon request. Michigan court reporters or recorders must be trained and certified.

Criminal Case

  • A charge filed by a prosecutor against a defendant concerning violation of a criminal law. The act of violating a criminal law is an offense against the community, not a private wrong. Examples of criminal cases include theft, murder and OUIL.

Criminal Sexual Conduct

  • 1st Degree CSC (MCL 750.520b - Felony - life or any term of years + AIDS~HIV~STD testing): a sexual act involving penetration (sexual intercourse, anal intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, intrusion into any other body part or object in genital or anal openings) and any of the following:
    • Victim is under 13 years old
    • Victim is 13 to 15 years old + is a blood affiliation to the defendant, lives in the defendant's household, or the defendant is in an authority position to the victim
    • Multiple actors are involved and force/coercion was used to accomplish the sexual penetration or the victim is incapacitated (physically helpless, mentally incapacitated or mentally defective)
    • Weapon involved
    • Personal injury + force/coercion
    • Personal injury + victim incapacitated
    • Defendant/actor is in the process of committing another felony
  • 2nd Degree CSC (MCL 750.520c - Felony - up to 15 years + AIDS~HIV~STD testing): sexual contact with the genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast, AND any of the circumstances listed for 1st Degree CSC.
  • 3rd Degree CSC (MCL 750.520d - Felony - up to 15 years + AIDS~HIV~STD testing): sexual penetration and any of the following:
    • Victim is 13 to 15 years old
    • Force or coercion
    • Victim incapacitated
  • 4th Degree CSC (MCL 750.520e - High Court Misdemeanor - up to 2 years in prison and/or $500 fine + AIDS~HIV~STD testing): sexual contact and any of the following:
    • Force or coercion
    • Victim incapacity
    • Defendant works for the Department of Corrections and the victim is an inmate
  • Note: All persons convicted of CSC must register as a sex offender.
  • Note: No need for corroboration of victim's testimony or resistance by victim.
  • Note: A person can be charged and convicted of CSC on a spouse.

Cross Examination

  • The questioning of a witness by a party other than the one who called that witness to the stand.


  • See Criminal Sexual Conduct.