AP Style Criminal Charges Topical Guide
When writing about emotionally charged or violent crimes, it is essential to remain credible, especially if you follow AP Stylebook guidelines. Although accuracy and precision are critical when reporting criminal behavior or accusations of harm, it is often difficult to remain detached. This AP Style criminal charges topical guide is designed to help.
A Guide to AP Style Criminal Charges and Activity
The following topical guide entries were written using AP Stylebook rules.
Individuals are accused of a crime, not with a crime. Also, to avoid suggested guilt before trial, don’t use inflammatory phrases such as accused killer or accused suspect.
- Ex: Tiny Wilson was accused of kicking the door down when his business partner changed the building’s locks.
Use allege or alleged with great care. Allege means something is unproven, so don’t use the term if you know that the event occurred.
Credit the source of the allegation you report if it’s impossible to avoid making an assertion. As a writer, it is essential to avoid all personal allegations and only cite sources that come from an indictment, public official’s statement or arrest record in a criminal case.
If an action is unproven, use alleged action, but remember to state the source. Since alleged can have possible negative connotations, refrain from using alleged victim. Don’t use both alleged and accused together, and choose words such as apparent or reputed when using a qualifier.
- Ex: The mayor’s report alleges there were more than a dozen shooting events in New York’s subway this year.
- Ex: The alleged bribe of the governor’s wife was listed as the cause of divorce in the petition.
- Ex: The apparent suicide was the result of three months of alleged bullying by classmates.
Prevent pre-judging individuals with phrases such as arrested for drunken driving or arrested for slaying. Instead, use language such as arrested on suspicion of if the charge is not filed yet or arrested on the charge of if charges have been filed.
- Ex: An unnamed teen has been arrested on suspicion of robbery outside the home of California’s new governor.
When a politically prominent or influential religious figure is killed, the killer is known as an assassin. The act of the sudden attack and killing of that individual is considered an assassination.
- Ex: Onlookers say that the assassin slid into the shadows moments after thrusting a knife into the mayor’s chest.
- Ex: The assassination of Cardinal Jerome rocked the city for weeks.
Brain-Dead, Brain Death
A person without a viable brain function is considered brain-dead. The event is called brain death.
- Ex: A healthy baby girl was born in a Czech clinic to a brain-dead mother.
- Ex: After having a cardiac arrest episode, the elderly man suffered brain death.
Burglary, Larceny, Robbery, Theft
The legal definition of burglary varies between states, but a general definition is that it occurs when an individual enters and unlawfully remains inside of a building with the intent to commit a crime. Breaking and entering is not necessary.
Larceny is a legal term that refers to the action of wrongfully taking someone’s property. The nonlegal references of theft or stealing are more frequently used; however, theft is actually a larceny without the threat of plundering or violence.
When violence or threats are used in the commission of a larceny, the action becomes a robbery. However, the term specifically refers to the act of rifling or plundering another’s property, so robbery can be used when a person who owned the property was not there when the event happened.
SPECIAL NOTE: Someone can steal personal possessions such as money or cars. Buildings and people can be robbed by removing personal items without permission.
- Ex.: John committed a burglary when he hid in the basement until the shop closed.
- Ex.: The prosecutor charged Susanna Trendel with larceny because she had the priceless watches in her possession when she was arrested.
- Ex.: While Lyle and Sara were away on vacation, their home was robbed. The thieves even stole the children’s piggy banks.
- SPECIAL Ex.: Brian Gunderson accused Jackson Smythe of stealing his wallet during the robbery late last night.
Civil Case, Criminal Case
When a contract is breached or an individual is wronged, a civil case can be filed against a business, individual or government agency. That civil lawsuit will seek damages from another business, individual or government agency.
If the federal government or a state charges an individual with a crime, the lawsuit results in a criminal case.
- Ex.: Emma Swanson filed a civil case against Tom Swanky for running his car through her garage door.
- Ex.: The criminal case focused on accused bank robber Liam Jones and his unidentified associate.
Clinically Dead, Clinical Death
It is best to avoid using clinical death or clinically dead because those terms don’t come with a standard definition. Although they often mean there are no measurable breath sounds, brainwaves or heartbeats, it is sometimes possible to keep a reported clinical death on machines and later resuscitate the clinically dead person.
Ex: John was rushed to the hospital after experiencing a seizure and was declared dead upon his arrival.
When a person is convicted of a crime, he or she becomes a convict. Never use convicted for.
- Ex: Tony Hayes was convicted of brutally slaying his brother over a video game they played in 2020.
The adjective drunk is used after the verb form of to be.
Drunken is used as an adjective before nouns.
- Ex.: Ginger Jones is drunk after imbibing a single shot of tequila.
- Ex.: The drunken man wove his way between parked cars.
DUI is an abbreviation for the term driving under the influence.
DWI is an acronym for the phrase driving while intoxicated.
Both are acceptable in all references.
See drunk, drunken.
- Ex.: When the police charged the mayor with DUI, it made all the papers.
- Ex.: Even taking prescription medications can result in a DWI offense.
Only a court can hand down an order to execute. The person’s life is then taken in a manner approved by that state, government or military branch of service in an event called an execution.
- Ex: Attorneys for Johnson, who has terminal cancer, have asked the Supreme Court to stop the execution so Johnson can die naturally.
First Degree, First-Degree
One of three degrees used to judge murders, first degree is the highest. Use a hyphen when first-degree is a compound modifier.
- Ex: The book said it was murder in the first degree.
- Ex: Elroy Stone’s final conviction was first-degree murder.
A homicide occurs when there is a deliberate killing of one person by another. Although the term homicide covers slaying, killing and manslaughter, the act should not be reported as murder unless the court convicts someone. Instead, report the cause of death using terms that explain the action that led to the death: beating, drowning, stabbing, poisoning, etc. It is appropriate to say that a victim was slain.
- Ex: The death of an Idaho man has been ruled a homicide.
Avoid using indict or indicted unless reporting that charges were brought in a legal process. Any other use can lead to an appearance of judgment and bias prior to trial.
- Ex: A federal court indicted Matthew LaMoine on a charge of bribery and corruption.
When someone commits a homicide with a motive, they become a killer.
Ex.: Tony became a killer when he shot John six times with a revolver.
The term civil lawsuit is considered redundant. To avoid possible pre-trial judgment or bias, use accused, accusing or accuses when reporting on a lawsuit.
- Ex: In a lawsuit filed by Denzel Jacobson, Mary Ellsworth is accused of using a steel baseball bat to destroy his vehicle’s exterior.
When a death results from an action performed without premeditation or malice, it is classified as manslaughter. This type of homicide is the result of unintentional negligence.
- Ex: Terrance Crawford was charged with manslaughter after the tree he was cutting down fell onto Maisy Dower as she sat in her backyard drinking tea.
Murder is the premeditated and violent action of a convicted person that causes the death of an individual. The homicide can occur during a rape, home invasion, fit of rage, etc. Report the action causing the death instead of noting that X was accused of murdering Y. An individual becomes a murderer only after a court convicts him or her of the crime. Remember to specify the type of killing when reporting any kind of murder.
- Ex: Lavinia Jute was convicted of murder in the stabbing death of her best friend, Trisha Cambridge.
- Ex: Charlie Smith became the third murderer in her family yesterday when the court handed down a guilty verdict in her mother’s poisoning.
Anyone under the age of 18 that has been accused of a crime is considered a juvenile and should not have their names or images published. The same is true for victims of violent crimes such as abuse or sexual assault or juveniles that are witnesses to crimes.
There are some occasions when a regional editor will authorize an exception to the privacy rule, but these are rare and must follow state and national laws. If public safety is in question, a manhunt is underway, or the youth has been charged as an adult, the juvenile’s name may be published.
If the police have published a juvenile’s name because of a possible abduction or other serious offense against the minor and it is later discovered the child was a victim of sexual assault or abuse, refrain from any further identification of that juvenile.
- Ex.: The police have not identified the juvenile kidnapping victim’s name at this time.
- Ex.: After a four-day ordeal, the kidnapper released the seven-year-old child in the Youngstown shopping mall parking lot.
A slaying occurs when there is an intentional killing of an individual. This action is also known as manslaughter, homicide or murder.
- Ex: The slaying death of Andrew Potter by his grandson came as a complete surprise to all his neighbors.
To avoid possible bias before trial, refrain from using the term sue. Use phrases such as accuses or accusing.
- Ex: Jilly Landon’s agent reported to ZYXQ News that the famous actress is not part of a lawsuit accusing the theater of fraud and libel.
A survivor can be someone who experienced a traumatic event or an individual who escaped an incident. Use this term with care because of its political and inexact nature. If there is possible confusion, clarify the event’s specificity, the injury or the death.
Groups of survivors are given more leeway than individuals if those reported about were never in any danger of specific death.
- Ex: The reporter rushed to the scene of the avalanche to interview the single survivor.
- Ex: The ceremony honored the survivor, Lonny Tippet, and the firefighters that pulled him from the fire.
When referring to an individual that authorities have confirmed committed a crime, using the term suspect is incorrect. However, when an individual’s identity is unknown and the authorities believe a person committed a crime, then suspect is correct.
When describing an event, use rapist, robber or killer when appropriate, not suspect.
- Ex: A fourteen-year-old became the suspect of a larceny investigation after police discovered the teen had $2,000 in his pocket.
The term victim can be confusing and should be used with care. A victim of a crime can endure many types of problems, including being injured, killed or abused. Use clear and concise language to clarify possible confusion.
In a crime report, beware of inherent biases such as alleged victim and avoid any connotations of guilt by using the term accuser instead of victim when referring to the person alleging the crime.
- Ex: The Clearbridge Mall was the site of a mass shooting event on Saturday, and one victim was hit in the leg by a 45-caliber bullet.
- Ex: The accuser claims Jeremy Bernard held her against the wall and tried to steal her purse.
AP Style Criminal Charges Clarified
Now that you have access to the essential spellings, definitions and terms used to properly discuss criminal activity under the AP style guidelines, you can confidently cover these difficult topics.
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One of the examples in the “Burglary, Larceny, Robbery, Theft” entry above contradicts the definition. This entry states that robbery is, “When violence or threats are used in the commission of a larceny” but one of the examples for “rob” reads, “While Lyle and Sara were away on vacation, their home was robbed. The thieves even stole the children’s piggy banks.”
Since Lyle and Sara were away, their home was burglarized, not robbed. Even if they were at home, their home would have still been burglarized if, say, they were asleep during the entire encounter. A robbery would have occurred if Lyle and Sara were, say, forced to show the thieves where all of their valuable possessions were hidden.
Thanks for this information, Brad! It looks like AP’s usage may be broader. Here’s the entry for “robbery”:
“Robbery in the legal sense involves the use of violence or threat in committing larceny. In a wider sense it means to plunder or rifle, and may thus be used even if a person was not present: His house was robbed while he was away.”