Legal Terminology

Acquittal: A decision by the trial jury or judge that a person is not guilty of an offense.

Adjournment: A postponement of a criminal case.

Affadavit: A written statement by someone who swears it is true. Can be used in court as evidence.

Affirmance: A decision by an appeals court that upholds the decision of a lower court.

Alternate jurors: extra jurors chosen in case one of the twelve (or six) jurors become unavailable to serve during the trial.

Appeal: A request for review by a higher court of proceedings in a lower court.

Appellate judges (Appeals Court): Judges that decide an appeal.

Appellate argument: A court proceeding at which an appeal is orally argued before appellate judges.

Application for a stay: A request to be released while an appeal is pending.

Arraignment: A hearing (court appearance) at which the defendant is formally charged and is asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. In felony cases, an arraignment follows a preliminary hearing.

Bail: The amount of money a judge determines sufficient to release an accused and assure his or her attendance at later hearings. The accused can lose the total amount of bail if he or she fails to appear for court.

Bail or Bond Review: A hearing to review bail or bond conditions to determine if there should be changes.

Bench warrant: A court order for a person's arrest that is issued when a person fails to appear in court on a scheduled date.

Beyond a reasonable doubt: The burden of proof that the prosecutor must meet at trial in proving that a person is guilty of an offense.

Brief: A written legal argument.

Challenge for cause: A motion to excuse a juror from serving on a jury because he or she could not be fair or for some other reason allowed by law.

Charging: When the District Attorney prepares a criminal complaint based on the evidence and witness statements developed during an investigation.

Complainant: The person who begins the case. May be same as plaintiff or petitioner.
Complaint:The formal document prepared by the DA based on police reports. It lists the charges and some of the evidence against the offender. The complaint is filed with the Clerk of Court.

Concurrent sentences: Sentences that are served at the same time.

Conditional discharge: A sentence allowing for release from jail without supervision by the Department of Probation, but which requires compliance with conditions set by the court.

Confer: To talk with the district attorney or designee about the criminal case. The discussions may include plea agreements, sentencing recommendations and possible outcomes.

Consecutive sentences: Sentences that must be served one after another.

Contempt of Court: To disobey a court order which can result in a fine or incarceration.

Continuance or Continued: A delay of a court hearing to another day.

Conviction: A finding of guilt of an offense, following either a guilty plea or a trial verdict.

Court of Appeals: Usually the he highest court in the state.

Criminal Court: The court where criminal proceedings begin. Misdemeanor cases remain in this court.

Cross-examination: Questioning of a witness by the lawyer who has not called the witness.

Defendant: The person charged with a criminal offense. This is the person alleged to have committed a crime.

Defense: Evidence or arguments presented on behalf of a person accused of an offense.

Defense Attorney: The defendant's attorney.

Deferred Prosecution Agreement: An agreement to suspend prosecution for a specific period of time if the offender complies with certain conditions. Prosecution may resume if the offender fails to comply with the conditions. Upon successful completion of the agreement, charges against the offender are dropped.

Deliberations: A secret meeting at which the jury considers the evidence presented at trial to decide if a person is guilty of charged offenses.

Direct examination: Questioning of a witness by the lawyer who called that witness.

Discovery: The process by which the prosecutor and defense attorney each learn of the evidence the other will present at trial.

Dismissal: The charge(s) against the offender are dropped.

Disposition: The final result of a criminal case. This may be a finding of guilty, not guilty, dismissal or a plea of no contest.

District Attorney: The prosecuting officer who is an elected official and who represents the State in each of its prosecutorial units. Also called a prosecutor or DA.

Due Process: The right of accused persons (defendants) to receive notice of the charges against them, be present at the trial, provide evidence to the court, and face a jury of their peers. Due process rights, guaranteed in the United States Constitution, can also be described as every person's right to a fair trial.

Evidence: Anything shown in court to support a case. Can include testimony, documents, photographs, items of clothing, weapons, and police and medical records. 

Exhibits: Physical evidence introduced at a hearing or trial.

Ex Parte: In Latin, this means "from one side." A temporary protective order issued by a judge who hears only frmo the victim is an ex parte order.

Extended Supervision (ES): A period of supervision that follows a prison sentence, also known as community supervision.

Felony: A crime that may be punishable by confinement in a state prison, generally for a term exceeding one year.

Felony Complaint: The first document filed with the court that sets out the initial charges in a felony case.

Fine: A sentence that requires the payment of money.

Fingerprint Report (rap sheet): A summary of a defendant's prior and/or currently pending arrests and convictions.

Grand Jury: A group of citizens who decide if the prosecutor has enough evidence to pursue felony charges against a person. Defendant and defense attorney are not present.

Hearing: General term used for an arraignment, pre-trial, trial, sentencing, or court proceeding in which a judge listens to information presented and makes a decision. Testimony is given, exhibits are reviewed, and/or legal arguments are made.  

Hung jury: A term used to describe a trial jury that cannot reach a unanimous verdict.

Indictment: A document that contains the felony (and perhaps also misdemeanor) charges that were voted by the grand jury. Formal charges.

Indigent: Having no money. Someone who is not able to afford a lawyer or court fees. Will be appointed legal representation by the court.

Initial Appearance: A defendant's first appearance in court. A judge reads the charges, sets bail, and appoints an attorney if one is needed. In felony cases, a date is often set for arraignment or preliminary hearing. In misdemeanors, the initial appearance is also the arraignment and the defendant enters a plea.

Jurors (jury): A group of citizens who decide at trial if a defendant is guilty or not guilty of charges.

Jury Box: Where jury is seated.

Jury Charge or jury instructions: Explanation of the law read by the judge to the jury.

Jury Panel: A large number of people from whom the jury is selected.

Jury Trial: A proceeding in which a panel of citizens who are selected to listen to the facts of the case and decide whether the State has proven its charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Legal Aid Society: A private non-profit organization that provides legal representation to people who do not have enough money to pay for a lawyer.

Life Sentence: An offender who is sentenced to life for an act committed on or after December 31, 1999 must serve at least 20 years in prison before being eligible for release on extended supervision.

Magistrate: Person who can make decisions similar to a judge.

Misdemeanor: A crime that may be punishable by confinement to a county jail, generally for one year or less.

Misdemeanor complaint: A document filed with the court that sets out the initial charges in a misdemeanor case.

Mistrial: A decision by a judge to end a trial before a verdict is reached.

Motions: An oral or written request about a legal question made by the prosecutor or the defense attorney before, during, or after a trial Motions are filed to make a decision about some legal aspect of the case.

“No-Bill”: Is short hand for “No True Bill of Indictment." Its effective meaning is that the Grand Jury has heard the case and voted to dismiss it.

No Contest Plea: When the defendant accepts the criminal charges, but does not admit guilt. In turn, the court usually finds the defendant guilty.

Objection: A request to a judge for an order prohibiting or excluding certain evidence.

Opening statement: Argument to the jury or judge made at the beginning of a trial.

Order of Protection (Civil Protection Order): Is a court order prohibiting contact between a defendant and the crime victim or witness. Usually used in domestic violence cases pre-disposition and/or as part of a sentence in a domestic violence or sex case.

Party or parties: A person or people involved in a legal action.

Parole: When the offender is released from prison and-placed on supervision (parole) with conditions. Offenders who committed an offense prior to December 31, 1999, are eligible for parole.

People's Appeal: An appeal brought by the prosecutor.

Peremptory Challenge: A motion to excuse a juror from serving on a jury without any reason given.

Petition: An applicatoin or request asking the court to issue a protective order.

Petitioner: The person making the request.

Plaintiff: Person, company, or government unit that brings charges or lawsuit against a defendant.

Plea Bargain (also called a Plea Agreement): A proposed resolution to the case agreed upon by the district attorney, the defense attorney and the defendant and is done in an effort to resolve the case and hold the offender accountable without holding a trial. The defendant admits guilt, usually in exchange for a promise that a particular sentence will be imposed. Reasons to plea bargain for the prosecution: 1) Avoid the time, delay, and expense of the trial; 2) Lack of evidence to clearly prove the charge. Reasons to plea bargain for defendant: 1) Accept guilt on lesser charge rather than face possibility of being found guilty on more serious charges; 2) Avoid time and expense of trial.

Plead Guilty (guilty plea): Where a defendant admits to having committed a charged offense.

Pre-Sentence Memoranda: Documents prepared by the prosecutor and the defendant to help the judge determine a sentence.

Preliminary Hearing: A hearing at which the prosecutor attempts to establish that a crime was committed and the defendant committed that crime. If probable cause is established, the case will proceed. If not established, the case is dismissed. If probable cause is determined, the cse will be bound over to Grand Jury.

Pre-sentence investigation: These are not always done. Input and opinion of victim is considered along with background of defendant and facts in the case to determine sentence for specific charge within limits established by law.

Pre-trial: A conference between both the attorneys on the case. Purpose is to review the case, exchange discovery and discuss any possible offers and/or recommendations the State would give if the defendant were to plead guilty. In criminal court, the defendant must be present. The victim may or may not need to be present.  

Probable Cause: A determination by the court that more likely than not, a criminal act occurred and was committed by the defendant accused.

Probation: A sentence that does not involve prison but requires compliance with certain conditions for a specified period of time under the supervision of the Department of Probation. Violation of probation can result in a prison sentence, additional restrictions, or a change in conditions of supervision.

Pro Bono: Free of charge.

Process Server: The person who personally delivers legal documents ordering someone to appear in court.

Pro Se: Acting as one's own lawyer. In Latin, this means "for oneself."

Prosecutor: The District Attorney is a lawyer who represents the government in criminal cases (also known as the Assistant District Attorney,, Special Prosecutor, the People, or the prosecution) who has been asked or appointed to review and handle a specific case.

Public Defender: Is the embodiment of our 6th Amendment Right to Counsel. "If you cannot afford counsel, a lawyer will be appointed to represent you". So, in essence a Public defender is a free criminal defense lawyer furnished to uphold the indigent defendant's 6th Amendment Rights.

Rebuttal: Evidence or argument made in response to an argument.

Release on Recognizance (R.O.R.'d): To be released from jail without bail while a case is pending.

Remand or Remanded to Custody: To be sent to jail.

Remit: An order by an appeals court sending a case back to a lower court for further proceedings.

Respondent: The person who responds to a petition.

Restitution: An amount of money set by the court that the offender is ordered to pay the victim(s) of a crime.

Reversal: A decision by an appeals court that rejects the decision of a lower court.

Sentence: A punishment imposed by a judge following a conviction.

Sentencing: A court proceeding at which a sentence is imposed.

Sequestration: An order by the court that witnesses not speak to one another during the course of a court proceeding, and may include exclusion from courtroom during other testimony.

Split Sentence: A jail sentence followed by a period of probation.

Subpoena: A legal order requiring a person to appear in court to testify as a witness.

Summation: Closing argument made at trial.

Suppression Order: A court order that prohibits the admission of specific evidence at trial.

Surrebuttal: The stage of the trial when a party may offer evidence in response to rebuttal evidence.

Sworn Oath: A promise to tell the truth.

Temporary Order of Protection: A court order that forbids a person from contacting or being in the presence of a specific person for a specified period of time.

Testify (testimony): To speak under oath.

Testimony: The statement of a witness in court.

Transcripts: Official record of everything that is said in court.

Trial: An official hearing of the facts in court. With physical evidence and testimony, the DA attempts to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge (trial by the court) or jury (jury trial) decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty of the charges against him or her.

Unconditional Discharge: A sentence which does not require either any imprisonment or conditions.

Vacate: To cancel a court order. A vacated court order has no legal effect.

Verdict: The trial judge or jury's decision as to whether a person is guilty or not guilty of charged offenses.

Victim Impact Statement: An oral and/or written statement that is presented to the court at the time of sentencing. A Victim Impact Statement is a victim's opportunity to tell the court how the crime affected them emotionally, financially and physically.

Violation: An offense punishable by up to fifteen days in jail and/or a fine.

Warrant: A legal order to a law enforcement agency to arrest the person named in the order. A warrant is usually issued for an offender who fails to appear in court.

Waive: To give up a legal right.


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