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What Does "In Flagrante Delicto" Mean?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2014
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In flagrante delicto is a legal term that roughly translates as "caught in the act," or "caught red-handed." A more accurate translation of the Latin term is "during a blazing or burning misdeed." It’s helpful to recall the term "flagrant," which derives from flagrante, when trying to recall this term’s meaning. Flagrant means open, glaring, obvious, reprehensible or conspicuously bad. Essentially, the person who is apprehended in flagrante delicto is in the middle of doing a terrible thing and is caught while doing it. In common language, the thing may not be so terrible and the term becomes slang for being caught in the act of sexual intercourse.

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It is difficult to mount a defense when a person is discovered in flagrante delicto because there is plenty of evidence that a crime was taking place and the person charged with it was committing it. Someone who is apprehended breaking into a bank, racing out of a grocery store with stolen goods, punching someone in the face or in other ways being discovered while acting in a criminal way would have a very difficult time proving behavior hadn’t been criminal. Instead of trying prove that someone didn’t commit a crime, the defense may revolve around extenuating circumstances that either made the crime lesser than it appeared, or defending attorneys could create an argument that the person had no intention of completing a crime. In many instances, the person found in flagrante delicto makes a guilty plea and tries to get a lesser charge through plea-bargaining.

The only potential advantage in being apprehended in flagrante delicto occurs if the person is caught as the crime begins. Not completing the crime might mean slightly reduced charges. There could be a big difference between being charged with an attempted criminal offense as opposed to one that is completed, such as attempted robbery, in contrast to robbery.

Yet being found in flagrante delicto doesn’t specify when a person is caught. He could easily be apprehended red-handed while escaping a crime scene, while perpetrating a crime or at the beginning of the act. Additionally, the degree to which charges might be reduced if a crime is not fully completed depends on laws in individual jurisdictions and regions.

The more common usage of in flagrante delicto to refer to being caught in the act of sex does not necessarily imply any form of criminal or licentious behavior. For instance, a child could surprise her parents by entering their bedroom while they are in the act of intercourse. Neither child nor parents are at fault, and it is a common scenario.

Catching someone committing adultery bears more similarity to the way the term is used legally. In actuality, witnessing such behavior might be used in civil divorce cases where division of assets is controversial. Not all jurisdictions would admit such evidence, because some areas have no fault divorce laws, where adultery does not affect property division.

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