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20 Criminal Terms You Should Know

DISCLAIMER: This is a random list of frequently heard terms that relate to criminal
activities. It is NOT comprehensive. It is NOT to be construed as legal advice. If you need reliable
legal information, talk to a lawyer who practices law where you reside.

Broadly speaking, U.S. law recognizes two types of crime: misdemeanor and felony.

Not every state agrees as to the classification of misdemeanors and felonies. For example, in
some states domestic abuse is a misdemeanor; in others it’s a felony. Nonetheless federal
guidelines determine the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor in terms of punishment:
a crime punished by imprisonment of a year or less is a “misdemeanor.”

1. arson: From Latin ardere, “to burn” (pp. arsus). Intentionally damaging a building with fire or

2. burglary: The crime of breaking into a house with intent to commit theft. Until some time ago
this charge occurred only if the felon broke into the house at night.

3. crime: from Latin crimen, “charge, indictment, offense.” An act punishable by law, as being
forbidden by statute or injurious to the public welfare. Legally, a crime consists of two parts: actus
rea, the criminal action, and mens rea, the criminal intention.

4. domestic abuse: any act or threatened act against a person with whom an intimate relationship
exists or existed, for example, spouse, boy/girlfriend, child.

5. embezzlement: from Anglo-Fr. embesiler “to steal, cause to disappear.” A person who
appropriates to personal use money entrusted for another purpose commits embezzlement.

6. felony: as a term in common law from Old French felonie, “wickedness, evil, treachery, perfidy,
crime, cruelty, sin.” Noun: felon; adjective: felonious.

7. forgery: The creation of a false written document or alteration of a genuine one, with the intent
to defraud.

8. human trafficking: the crime of displacing people with a view to exploiting them.

9. kidnapping: a compound of kid (slang for “child” and nap, a variant of nab, “to snatch away.”
The word first referred to the practice of stealing children or others in order to provide servants
and workers for the American colonies. In current usage, the crime of kidnapping is the abduction
of a person of any age with the intention of holding the person for ransom or for some other

10. larceny: from Latin latrocinium, “robbery.” The felonious taking and carrying away of the
personal goods of another with intent to convert them to the taker’s use. The difference between
grand larceny and petit larceny is one of the value (as defined by statute) of the stolen property.

11. manslaughter: from Old English mann, “person”+slaeht, “act of killing.” Manslaughter is the
unlawful killing of a human being without malicious intent. Voluntary manslaughter is committed in
the heat of passion, or while committing another felony. Involuntary manslaughter is the result of
accident, such as vehicular manslaughter.

12. moral turpitude: turpitude is from a Latin word meaning “vile, ugly, base, shameful.” Defining
the term in a legal sense is a slippery undertaking. Crimes of moral turpitude include: murder,
voluntary manslaughter, rape, domestic violence, prostitution, embezzlement, arson, bribery,
blackmal, perjury, and theft.

13. murder: from Old English morðor. “secret killing of a person.” Murder is intentionally causing
the death of another, either through premediation focused on a particular individual, or by
extreme indifference to human life. First degree murder is defined by federal and state laws,
which vary.

14. prostitution: from Latin prostituere, “to expose to prostitutuion, to expose publicly.”
Commission of a sex act for money or some other thing of value.

15. receiving: accepting property for use, resale, or disposal that is thought or known by the
receiver to have been stolen.

16. robbery: from Old French rober, from a Germanic source meaning “to rob, spoil, plunder.”
Robbery is theft committed openly and with force.

17. stalking: With the sense “pursue stealthily, the verb stalk comes from Old English -stealcian,
as in bestealcian “to steal along.” An early meaning of stalker was “one who prowls for the
purposes of theft.” In today’s usage, stalking is a crime that involves the intentional and repeated
following and harrassing of another person to the extent that the targeted person fears bodily

18. theft: depriving another of property. Theft implies subterfuge, while robbery is the open taking
of property. Burglary is committed when the thief breaks into a building:

19. treason: AngloNorman treson from a Latin word meaning “a handing over, surrender,” and
influenced by Old French trair “betray.” Treason is the crime of siding with the enemy, either to
fight against one’s own country, or to offer “aid and comfort” to the enemy.

20. trespass: from Old French trespasser, “to pass beyond or across.” Trespass is entering
another’s property without permission. If it is with an illegal intent, it’s a crime. Illegal dumping is a
form of trespass