Entering a courtroom or legal office can sometimes feel like you might need an interpreter who can help you understand common phrases, language, acronyms, and terminology most commonly used in legal proceedings. Unless you attended law school or carry a law dictionary around, the terminology can be intimidating for many who find themselves needing to navigate the court systems, most especially in the areas of criminal law. 

In an attempt to cultivate a better awareness of these terms, Patrick Conway Law would like to start a recurring series that will help explain and define terms that are commonly heard in criminal cases and may help clients understand the proceedings as they occur. 

Goddess of justice scales with books and black background


Criminal cases are often categorized as felonies or misdemeanors. A felony, according to the State of Massachusetts, is a serious crime. Specifically, a felony is a serious criminal offense, often punishable by a prison term. Felonies are considered more severe than misdemeanors. 

For instance, murder, extortion, and kidnapping are some examples of felonies. Massachusetts also considers drug and narcotics charges, arson, burglary, armed robbery, rape and/or sexual assault, and aggravated assault and battery, to be felonies.

These types of crimes are then classified as 1st-degree, 2nd-degree, 3rd-degree, or capital felonies. Each one offers unique sentencing guidelines depending on the seriousness of the crime and the criminal code. 


In the eyes of the courts, a misdemeanor is a less serious crime than a felony. Misdemeanors also have a classification system consisting of 1st-degree and 2nd-degree misdemeanors. 

In Massachusetts, a misdemeanor is any criminal offense that does not carry the potential for state prison time.  The maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is 2 1/2 years in the House of Corrections.  

Examples of misdemeanors in the Bay State include petty theft, first-time drunk driving, drug possession, domestic assault,  assault, failing to appear in court, hit and run, shoplifting, indecent exposure, resisting arrest, and trespassing. 

Probable Cause 

In layman’s terms, probable cause means that someone is “more likely than not” or 51% sure that something is true. In criminal law, this standard is used by police to determine if a crime has been committed in order to obtain a search warrant or to arrest someone without a warrant. The ultimate question for this term includes “Is there enough or sufficient evidence?” 

A Probable Cause Hearing is a hearing held in a criminal case to determine if sufficient evidence exists to prosecute someone. 


The term inadmissible is often used by lawyers who are trying to determine if a piece of evidence can be entered into the court record. Technically it means “that which, under the rules of evidence, cannot be admitted or received as evidence.” (U.S. Courts

For example, if evidence was obtained in an illegal search and seizure committed without a warrant, that evidence cannot be used against them in court. Or if a confession was obtained illegally or coerced, it is inadmissible. 

Miranda Rights 

According to the U.S. Supreme Court Case ruling in Miranda v. Arizona anyone being questioned by authorities must first receive a ‘Miranda Warning’. These warnings include: 

1) You have the right to remain silent. 

2) If you choose to speak, anything you say can be used against you in court. 

3) If you decide to answer any questions, you may stop at any time and all questioning must cease. 

4) You have a right to consult with your attorney before answering any questions. You have the right to have your attorney present if you decide to answer any questions, and if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you or appointed for you by the court without cost to you before any further questions may be asked.

These rights are explained by police to the person being detained so they can understand their rights under the law of the state and nation.