Legal Glossary

  • A

    Accomplice - 1. A partner in a crime. 2. A person who knowingly and voluntarily participates with another in a criminal activity.

    Acquittal - A release, absolution, or discharge of an obligation or liability. In criminal law the finding of not guilty.

    Affirmative defense -In criminal cases insanity, duress, self-defense might be used.

    Aid and Abet - To actively, knowingly, or intentionally assist another person in the commission or attempted commission of a crime.

    Allegation - A statement of the issues in a written document (a pleading) which a person is prepared to prove in court.

    Arraignment - The hearing at which the accused is brought before the court to plead to the criminal charge in the indictment. He may plead “guilty,” “not guilty,” or where permitted “nolo contendere.”

    Arrest - To take into custody by legal authority.

    Assault - Threat to inflict injury with an apparent ability to do so. Also, any knowing, reckless or intentional display of force that would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm.

  • B

    Bail - Money or other security (such as a bail bond) provided to the court to temporarily allow a person’s release from jail and assure their appearance in court. “Bail” and “Bond” are often used interchangeably. (Applies mainly to state courts.)

    Bail bond - An obligation signed by the accused to secure his or her presence at the trial. This obligation means that the accused may lose money by not properly appearing for the trial. Often referred to simply as “bond.”

    Bench trial - (Also known as court trial.) Trial without a jury in which a judge decides the facts.

    Bench warrant - An order issued by a judge for the arrest of a person.

    Beyond a reasonable doubt - The standard in a criminal case requiring that the jury be satisfied to a moral certainty that every element of a crime has been proven by the prosecution. This standard of proof does not require that the state establish absolute certainty by eliminating all doubt, but it does require that the evidence be so conclusive that all reasonable doubts are removed from the mind of the ordinary person.

    Bind over - To hold a person for trial on bond (bail) or in jail. If the judicial official conducting a hearing finds probable cause to believe the accused committed a crime, the official will bind over the accused, normally by setting bail for the accused’s appearance at trial. (This is a state court procedure.)

    Booking - The process of photographing, fingerprinting, and recording identifying data of a suspect. This process follows the arrest.

    Burden of proof - In the law of evidence, the necessity or duty of affirmatively proving a fact or facts in dispute on an issue raised between the parties in a lawsuit. The responsibility of proving a point (the burden of proof). It deals with which side must establish a point or points. (See standard of proof.)

  • C

    Capital crime -A crime punishable by death.

    Circumstantial evidence -All evidence except eyewitness testimony. One example is physical evidence, such as fingerprints, from which an inference can be drawn.

    Community Corrections – commonly referred to as a half-way house, this is a residential facility where a sentence can be served rather than in prison. Often clients are transferred here from prison prior to their discharge from parole.

    Concurrent sentences -Sentences for more than one crime that are to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. (See also cumulative or consecutive sentences.)

    Consecutive sentences -Successive sentences, one beginning at the expiration of another, imposed against a person convicted of two or more violations. (See also cumulative or concurrent sentences.)

    Consent -Agreement; voluntary acceptance of the wish of another.

    Constitution -The fundamental law of a nation or state which establishes the character and basic principles of the government.

    Conviction -A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

    Custody- Detaining of a person by lawful process or authority to assure his or her appearance to any hearing; the jailing or imprisonment of a person convicted of a crime.

  • D

    Defendant - The person accused of committing a crime.

    Detention Hearing - a hearing in federal court where a Judge determines whether a federal prisoner will be held in custody until trial or will be released with certain conditions that will ensure his presence at trial and protect the public.

    Discovery –Information about the case from the investigating agency., i.e. police reports, witness statements, records..

    Dismissal - The termination of a case.

    Diversion - The process of removing some minor criminal, traffic, or juvenile cases from the full judicial process, on the condition that the accused undergo some sort of rehabilitation or make restitution for damages.

    Double jeopardy - Putting a person on trial more than once for the same crime. It is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

    Due process of law - The right of all persons to receive the guarantees and safeguards of the law and the judicial process. It includes such constitutional requirements as adequate notice, assistance of counsel, and the rights to remain silent, to a speedy and public trial, to an impartial jury, and to confront and secure witnesses.

  • E

    Elements of a crime -Specific factors that define a crime which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction: (1) that a crime has actually occurred, (2) that the accused had the mental state to commit the crime (knowingly, recklessly, intentionally) and (3) a timely relationship between the first two factors.

    Evidence- Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case for one side or the other.

    Expungement -The process by which the record of criminal conviction is destroyed or sealed.

  • F
    Felony - A serious criminal offense that carries a possible prison sentence.
  • G
    Good time - A reduction in sentenced time in prison as a reward for good behavior.
  • H

    Hearsay – Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in court but there are many exceptions to the hearsay rule.

    Hostile witness - A witness whose testimony is not favorable to the party who calls him or her as a witness. A hostile witness may be asked leading questions and may be cross-examined by the party who calls him or her to the stand.

    Hung jury - A jury whose members cannot agree upon a verdict.

  • I

    Impeachment of a witness - An attack on the credibility (believability) of a witness, through evidence introduced for that purpose.

    Incarceration - Imprisonment in a county jail or a state or federal penitentiary.

    Indeterminate sentence - A sentence of imprisonment to a specified minimum and maximum period of time, specifically authorized by statute, subject to termination by a parole board or other authorized agency after the prisoner has served the minimum term.

    Indictment - A written accusation by a grand jury charging a person with a crime. (See information.)

    Initial appearance - The defendant comes before a judge within hours of the arrest to determine whether or not there is probable cause for his or her arrest.

    Information - Accusatory document, filed by the prosecutor, detailing the charges against the defendant. An alternative to an indictment, it serves to bring a defendant to trial.

    Infraction - A violation of law not punishable by imprisonment. Minor traffic offenses generally are considered infractions.

  • J

    Jurisdiction - The power or authority of a court to hear and try a case; the geographic area in which a court has power or the types of cases it has power to hear.

    Jury - In criminal law, a legal proceeding in which a jury (comprised of residents of the place of the crime)makes a decision regarding the guilt or innocence of a defendant for a crime.

  • M

    Miranda warning - Requirement that police tell a suspect in their custody of his or her constitutional rights before they question him or her. So named as a result of the Miranda v. Arizona ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

    Misdemeanor - A criminal offense lesser than a felony and generally punishable by fine or by incarceration in a county jail.

    Mistrial - An invalid trial, caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again from the selection of the jury.

  • N
    Negotiation - The process of submission and consideration of offers until an acceptable offer is made and accepted.
  • O

    Ordinance - A rule established by authority; may be a municipal statute of a city council, regulating such matters as zoning, building, safety, matters of municipality, etc.

  • P

    Parole - Supervised release of a prisoner from imprisonment on certain prescribed conditions which entitle him to termination of his sentence.

    Personal recognizance - In criminal proceedings, the pretrial release of a defendant without bail upon his or her promise to return to court. (See also recognizance.)

    Plea - The first pleading by a criminal defendant, the defendant’s declaration in open court that he or she is guilty or not guilty. The defendant’s answer to the charges made in the indictment or information.

    Plea bargaining - Process where the accused and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a satisfactory disposition of the case, usually by the accused agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser offense. Such bargains are not binding on the court. Also referred to as plea negotiating.

    Preliminary hearing - Also, preliminary examination. A hearing by a judge to determine whether a person charged with a crime should be held for trial. (See arraignment.)

    Presentence report - A report to the sentencing judge containing background information about the crime and the defendant to assist the judge in making his or her sentencing decision.

    Probable cause - A reasonable belief that a crime has or is being committed; the basis for all lawful searches, seizures, and arrests.

    Probation - An alternative to imprisonment allowing a person found guilty of an offense to stay in the community, usually under conditions and under the supervision of a probation officer. A violation of probation can lead to its revocation and to imprisonment.

    Prosecutor - A trial lawyer representing the government in a criminal case and the interests of the state in civil matters. In criminal cases, the prosecutor has the responsibility of deciding who and when to prosecute.

    Public defender - Government lawyer who provides free legal defense services to a poor person accused of a crime.

  • R

    Reasonable doubt - An accused person is entitled to acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, his or her guilt has not been proved beyond a “reasonable doubt;” that state of minds of jurors in which they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction as to the truth of the charge.

    Restitution - Act of restoring anything to its rightful owner; the act of restoring someone to an economic position he enjoyed before he suffered a loss.

    Retainer-Act of the client in employing the attorney or counsel, and also denotes the fee which the client pays when he or she retains the attorney to represent them.

    Rules of evidence - Standards governing whether evidence in a civil or criminal case is admissible.

  • S

    Search warrant - A written order issued by a judge that directs a law enforcement officer to search a specific area for a particular piece of evidence.

    Self-defense - The claim that an act otherwise criminal was legally justifiable because it was necessary to protect a person or property from the threat or action of another.

    Self-incrimination, privilege against: – The constitutional right of people to refuse to give testimony against themselves that could subject them to criminal prosecution. The right is guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution . Asserting the right is often referred to as “taking the Fifth.”

    Sentence - The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime. (See concurrent and consecutive sentences.)

    Service of process - The delivering of writs, summonses, and subpoenas by delivering them to the party named in the document. Also referred to as “service.”

    Speedy Trial Act - Federal law establishing time limits for carrying out major events, i.e. indictment, arraignment, etc., in a criminal prosecution.

    Statute - Legislative enactment; it may be a single act of a legislature or a body of acts which are collected and arranged for a session of a legislature. (See statutory law.)

    Subpoena - A command to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony upon a certain matter.

    Subpoena Duces Tecum - A court order commanding a witness to bring certain documents or records to court.

    Summons - Document issued by law enforcement for a person to appear in court on a certain date and time to face possible criminal charges.

    Suppress - To forbid the use of evidence at a trial because t is improper or was improperly obtained. (See also exclusionary rule.)

  • T

    Testimony - The evidence given by a witness under oath. It does not include evidence from documents and other physical evidence.

  • V

    Venue - Authority of a court to hear a matter based on geographical location.

    Voir dire - The preliminary examination made in court of a juror to determine his competency or interest in a matter. Literally, to speak the truth.

  • W

    Warrant - Most commonly, a court order authorizing law enforcement officers to make an arrest or conduct a search. An application seeking a warrant must be accompanied by an affidavit which establishes probable cause by detailing the facts upon which the request is based.

    Witness - One who personally sees or perceives a thing; one who testifies as to what he has seen, heard, or otherwise observed.