Watching 100 episodes of CSI, and listening to hours of true crime audiobooks and podcasts won’t necessarily make you an expert in the terminology of real-life investigators taking on unsolved cases. So, there’s a good chance that you could be using some terms wrong. 

Even when you think you got a handle on an unsolved case term, there’s a possibility that the details are fuzzy. For instance, many people are mistaken about the meaning of phrases like “cold case,” according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who has led his team in solving numerous cold cases in that Florida county. 

Judd said that people often assume that a cold case has been filed away and forgotten. While law enforcement officials may vary on the length of time that defines a cold case, Judd defines it as a case that happened “under suspicious circumstances and is unresolved for two years, due to a lack of leads or case activity.” 

Make sure you get it right the next time you use a word that’s related to investigative activity in an unsolved case. Take a look at these common terms that you may—or may not—be getting right.

Aggravated assault

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, aggravated assault is an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. Typically, law enforcement officials define this as an assault that includes the use of a weapon like a knife or a gun that can cause death or severe bodily harm.  



Although law enforcement officials have slight variations of the definition of arson depending upon the state, arson generally is described as the intentional and malicious act of burning property. While most people tend to think of arson as setting fire to a building, it can be the intentional burning of a vehicle, boats, airplane, machinery or even land, like a forest.



Law enforcement officials often use this acronym to refer to an “arrested person.”



A person can be charged with assault if they unlawfully assault another person, inflicting physical injury, whether or not they do it with a weapon. A person also can be charged with assault if they attempt or threaten to inflict physical injury on another person.


Child physical abuse

When an adult, including a parent, is accused of intentionally injuring a child through severe beating, biting, burning or strangling, they will likely face charges of child physical abuse. 



This term is used to describe a person’s voluntary agreement to make an intelligent choice to do something that has been proposed by another person. Officials would need to determine if the person had the mental capacity to agree—or consent.


Consent search

A search made by law enforcement officials after the subject of the search (a person with the mental capacity and ability to give consent) has agreed to that search freely andand intelligently. If such consent is given, the police can move forward with a search without a warrant.  



Property that is considered unlawful to possess, including illegal drugs and weapons, such 



Acronym for “date of birth.”



The sealing or destruction of a criminal record, including records of the investigation, arrest, detention, or conviction of the person petitioning to have them removed.


Evidentiary property

Any property relevant to the commission of a crime.


Exclusionary rule

A court rule that states, where evidence has been obtained in violation of the search and seizure protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the illegally obtained evidence, cannot be used at the trial of the defendant.


Exigent circumstances

The phrase is typically used to describe investigative situations that demand unusual or immediate action. For example, exigent circumstances may be justification for conducting a search without a warrant, especially if law enforcement officials need to act quickly to make an arrest or conduct a search or seizure when there’s probable cause to do so. Police would need to make a case that they needed to act immediately to preserve the evidence of a crime or to arrest a likely suspect.


Fruits of a crime

Property stolen or embezzled as a result of a criminal act. 


Gang violence

Criminal acts committed by a group of three or more individuals who regularly engage in criminal activity and identify themselves with a common name or sign.


General search warrant

When this term is used, it generally means that the search warrant is illegal. A valid search warrant must specify a specific location and specific items. When a judge grants a search warrant, it also must be based on reliable information showing probable cause to search. Because of that, if an investigator conducts a random or blanket search, any evidence seized likely won’t hold up as being valid during court proceedings. 


Human trafficking

Another phrase that has emerged recently, human trafficking refers the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Human traffickers might use manipulation, violence or non-violent acts, such as the promise of good-paying jobs, to lure their victims into trafficking. Victims can be of any age or any nationality.


Good faith exceptions

Pertaining to the exclusionary rule in legal cases, good faith exceptions means that evidence is not to be suppressed in cases in which it was discovered by officers who were acting in good faith and had a reasonable, though mistaken, belief that they were authorized to take those actions.


Illegally obtained evidence

Evidence that has been determined to be obtained in violation of a defendant’s rights. Typically, it means because investigators did not obtain a warrant to seize the evidence, the warrant requested was defective or they did not have probable cause.



An informant is a person who provides information or performs an investigative role regarding an illegal activity, such as drug trafficking. An informant’s identity generally is held in confidentiality by law enforcement officials. 


Knock and announce

When executing an arrest or search warrant, police must first knock and announce their authority and purpose before entering into a home. 


Plain view doctrine

According to the plain view doctrine, illegal items that are in plain view of law enforcement officials who have a right to be in a location can be subject to seizure without a warrant. They also may be introduced as evidence during a court case. 


Probable cause

When investigators have more evidence that supports their belief that a person or persons is guilty—than against—they can make the case that they have probable cause for an arrest or the seizure of evidence. 


Reasonable suspicion

Similar to probable cause, reasonable suspicion can be used to back up an officer’s justification for stopping a person in a public place. This means that they had enough knowledge sufficient to believe that a criminal activity is taking place.


Search incident to arrest

This dictates that a law enforcement official has the right to arrest a person either with or without a warrant and may search his person and the immediate area of the arrest for weapons.


Search warrant

A search warrant is an official order issued by a judge that authorizes law enforcement officials to search for and seize any property that constitutes evidence of the commission of a crime, contraband or the fruits of a crime. The requesting law enforcement officials must prove there is sufficient cause to search a specific location and specific items. 


Sexual offense

Forcible rape, attempted rape, statutory rape, sexual harassment, prostitution, or other unlawful sexual contact and other unlawful behavior intended to result in sexual gratification or profit from sexual activity. The following outlines the distinctions made among victims of sexual crimes.


Adult molested as child

This refers to an adult who is 18 or older who was previously sexually abused as a child.


Adult sexual assault

This term refers to the crime of a sexual offense committed against an adult 18 or older. Rape, fondling and exhibitionism can all fall into this category.


Child sexual abuse

Sexual offense against a child by any adult, including a parent or other relatives



While stalking is generally considered as someone following another person without their permission or desire, it can describe any unwanted contact between two people that directly or indirectly communicates a threat or places the victim in fear. For that reason, stalking can include unwanted texts and emails.


Survivor of a homicide victim

A family member or loved one of a murder victim.



Use of violence or intimidation—whether from a domestic or foreign person—to coerce a government or civilian population to further their political or social objectives.


Unsolved criminal case

This often refers to a criminal investigation that hasn’t been solved after an extended amount of time. Many law enforcement agencies will set a timeline of at least a year or two before determining that a case is tagged as “unsolved” or “cold.” It could still remain “on the books” and be reopened after new evidence appears, according to the Cold Case Foundation.



Another area that can get confusing is the description of victims, who generally are the target of non-violent and violent crimes. Some of the different distinctions are as follows:


Child victim

Typically a person under the age of 18, unless defined otherwise based on the state law.


Victims with disabilities

Victims of crime who have a physical or mental disability.


Victims of domestic violence

Law enforcement officials also make a distinction in violent crimes committed against a person by their current or former spouse or domestic partner. 


Victims of elderly abuse

As with children and teens, the elderly, typically those 62 and older who depend upon others for support and assistance, can fall into a different victim category. This type of abuse is often perpetrated by the elderly person’s caretaker.


Victim of a hate crime

This term can be misleading because people tend to think of hate as “rage, anger, or general dislike,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. When combined with crime, as in hate crime, the offense is considered a bias against people or groups of people with specific characteristics that are defined by the law. And, in most cases, the “crime” in hate crime involves assault, vandalism, murder, arson or threats to commit those types of crimes. 

At the federal level, hate crime laws include crimes committed on the basis of the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Of the 49 states that have hate crime laws, the definition can vary. Many include crimes committed on the basis of race, color and religion. In recent years, some have extended the definition to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability.



Together We Can Build a Community. Our team is taking publicly available data and creating timelines, pulling maps, organizing sources, and visualizing cold cases for more eyes and collective impact.

We're building a community for advocates, citizen detectives, and true crime enthusiasts to use your skills to crowdsource the gaps in unsolved cases to help uncover answers—join the Uncovered community!