Caveat: I am not a lawyer, nor do I profess to be one. These Criminal Justice Definitions and Terms are a collection I have gathered from Black’s Law Dictionary, Federal, and State Laws, and the American Bar Association. In a prior life, I was a criminal paralegal. These are my interpretations of criminal terms used most often. I have searched for some of the most common terms that are used as criminal justice definitions. Any errors are mine.
The following Criminal Justice Definitions and Terms are listed here for simple definitions while reading about True Crime.
- Criminal JUSTICE definitions and Terms
- Cause of Action
- Canons of ethics
- Capital offense
- Case file
- Case law
- Change of Venue
- Character Evidence
- Circumstantial Evidence
- Clerk of court
- Code of Professional Responsibility
- Community service
- Concurrent sentence
- Consecutive sentence
- Contempt of court
- Corroborating Evidence
- Court reporter
- CRIMINAL CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION
- Criminal justice system
- Criminal Law
- Criminal Summons
- Per curiam
- Peremptory challenge
- Petit jury (or trial jury)
- Petty offense
- Plea Bargain / Negotiations
- Preliminary hearing
- Presentence report
- Pretrial conference
- Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI)
- Pretrial services
- Pro Bono
- Pro per
- Pro se
- Pro tem
- Probation officer
- Public Defender
Criminal JUSTICE definitions and Terms
Someone who helps another person (called the principal) commit a crime. Unlike an accessory, an accomplice is usually present when the crime is committed. An accomplice is guilty of the same offense and usually receives the same sentence as the principal. You see this most often in murder cases, where someone helps or even plans the murder, but doesn’t do the specific act. That individual is usually charged with the same offense and can receive the same punishment. (See also Accessory)
A person or persons formally charged but not yet tried for a crime.
Usually from a jury or judge verdict that says the criminal defendant is not guilty. It can also be from a judge that says the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction. It is important to understand that an “acquittal” or “not guilty” verdict does not mean the person is declared innocent.
A judge in the full-time service of the court. In smaller courts, Judges can be part-time, or even elected.
Giving or pronouncing a judgment or decree. Also the judgment given
A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases..
Confession of a charge, an error, or a crime; acknowledgment.
A voluntary, written, or printed statement of facts, confirmed by oath of the party making it before a person with authority to administer the oath.
An attempt to cause serious bodily injury to another or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causing such injury, or an attempt to cause or purposely or knowingly cause bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon.
The unlawful use of force against another with unusual or serious consequences such as the use of a dangerous weapon.
A claim or statement of what a party intends to prove; the facts as one party claims they are.
A juror selected in the same manner as a regular juror who hears all the evidence but does not help decide the case unless called on to replace a regular juror.
Latin for “friend of the court.” It is advice formally offered to the court in a brief filed by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case even though the party is not directly involved in the case at hand.
A request to a supervisory court, usually composed of a panel of judges, to overturn the legal ruling of a lower court.
The act of coming into court as a party to a suit either in person or through an attorney.
A court having jurisdiction to hear appeals and review a trial court’s procedure.
The appearance of the defendant in court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to enter his or her plea of guilty or not guilty. Normally the initial appearance before a judge in a criminal case. At an arraignment, the charges against the defendant are read, a lawyer is appointed if the defendant cannot afford one, and the defendant’s plea is entered. A plea can be guilty, not guilty, or where permitted nolo contendere. (See preliminary hearing.)
Threat to inflict injury with an apparent ability to do so. Also, any intentional display of force that would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm.
the term used to describe an attack that is characterised by cruelty and brutality. (This one was added because I found it fascinating that there were words of law to describe such an act.)
Bail / Bond
The money or property given to the court as security when an accused person is released before and during a trial under specified conditions, designed to assure that person’s appearance in court when required, with the agreement that the defendant will return to court when ordered to do so. Bail is forfeited if the defendant fails to return to court. Also can refer to the amount of bond money posted as a financial condition of pretrial release.
A term meaning lawyers or lawyer associations.
Trial without a jury in which a judge decides the facts. Also known as court trial.
An order issued by a judge for the arrest of a person. This is also known as a “capias.” Usually when a defendant or witness fails to appear due to subpoena or charge.
Best Evidence Rule
A rule of evidence that demands that the original of any document, photograph or recording be used as evidence at trial, rather than a copy. A copy will be allowed into evidence only if the original is unavailable.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. The jury must be convinced that the defendant committed each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt before returning a guilty verdict. It means the evidence is fully satisfied, all the facts are proven and guilt is established.
Part of the process of being arrested in which the details of who a person is and why he or she was arrested are recorded in police records.
A written argument or statement by counsel arguing a case, which contains a summary of the facts of the case, pertinent laws, and an argument of how the law applies to the fact situation. Also called a memorandum of law. Usually explains one side’s legal and factual arguments.
Burden of proof
In a court case, the responsibility of proving a point (the burden of proof); which side must establish a point or points. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt. (See standard of proof.)
Cause of Action
One or more related charges combined and made against a defendant for wrongs committed. The fact or facts which give a person a right to relief in court.
Canons of ethics
Standards of ethical conduct for attorneys. (See also Code of Professional Responsibility)
A crime punishable by death.
Theft by force or intimidation of an auto that has a driver or passenger present
A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.
The number of cases handled by a judge or a court.
The law as established in previous court decisions. A synonym for legal precedent. Akin to common law, which springs from tradition and judicial decisions.
When a higher court agrees to review the decision of a lower court. If an appellate court grants a writ of certiorari, it agrees to take the appeal.
The offices of a judge and his or her staff.
Change of Venue
A change in the location of a trial, usually granted to avoid prejudice against one of the parties.
A formal accusation or indictment filed by the prosecutor’s office that a specific person has committed a specific crime. Also known as pressing charges.
All evidence except eyewitness testimony. One example is physical evidence, such as fingerprints, from which an inference can be drawn.
Clerk of court
The court officer who oversees administrative functions, especially managing the flow of cases through the court. The clerk’s office is often called a court’s central nervous system.
Code of Professional Responsibility
The rules of conduct or ethics that govern the legal profession. (See also Canon of Ethics)
The use of physical force or threats to compel someone to commit an act against their will.
A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to work – without pay – for a civic or nonprofit organization.
A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant.
Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of five years behind bars. Sentences for different offenses (crimes) that run together or are served at the same time.
Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served consecutively, result in a maximum of 13 years behind bars. Sentences that are successive and are served one after another.
Contempt of court
Willful disobedience of a judge’s command or of an official court order. An action that interferes with a judge’s ability to administer justice or that insults the dignity of the court. Disrespectful comments to the judge or a failure to heed a judge’s orders could be considered contempt of court. A person found in contempt of court can face financial sanctions and, in some cases, jail time.
Postponement of a legal proceeding to a later date.
A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.
Supplementary evidence that tends to strengthen or confirm the initial evidence.
A legal adviser; a term used to refer to lawyers in a case.
An allegation in an indictment or information, charging a defendant with a crime. An indictment or information may contain allegations that the defendant committed more than one crime. Each allegation is referred to as a count.
Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use “court” to refer to themselves in the third person, as in “the court has read the briefs.”
A person who makes a word-for-word record, by shorthand, stenographically, audio recording, of what is said in court, and then produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.
An act in violation of the penal laws of a state or the United States.
CRIMINAL CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION
A criminal civil rights violation requires that the offender use force or the threat of force against the victim. An assault that is committed because of the victim’s race or sexual orientation
Criminal justice system
The network of courts and tribunals which deal with criminal law and its enforcement.
Public law that deals with crimes and their prosecution compare civil law NOTE: Substantive criminal law defines crimes, and procedural criminal law sets down criminal procedure.
An order commanding an accused to appear in court.
The questioning of a witness produced by the other side.
Detaining 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.
Declaration under Penalty of Perjury
A signed statement, sworn to be true by the signer, that will make the signer guilty of the crime of perjury if the statement is shown to be materially false — meaning, the lie is relevant and significant to the case.
Latin, meaning “in fact” or “actually.” Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.
Latin, meaning “in law.” Something that exists by operation of law.
Latin, meaning “anew.” A trial de novo is a completely new trial. Appellate review de novo implies no deference to the trial judge’s ruling.
An individual (or business) against whom a lawsuit is filed.
An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial. See discovery.
Procedures used to obtain disclosure of evidence before trial.
A log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.
The United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, defines domestic violence as felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabitating with or has cohabitated with the victim as a spouse or intimate partner, by a person similarly situated to a spouse of the victim under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction receiving grant monies, or by any other person against an adult or youth victim who is protected from that person’s acts under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction.
In an emergency, victims of domestic violence should call 911 or contact state or local law enforcement officials, who can respond to these crimes. Individuals in need of non-emergency assistance can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit www.TheHotline.org.
Federal Laws go a bit further in determining the types of abuse. Interpreted loosely, they are:
- Physical abuse hitting, biting, slapping, battering, shoving, punching, pulling hair, burning, cutting, pinching, etc. (any type of violent behavior inflicted on the victim). Also denying someone medical treatment and forcing drug/alcohol use on someone.
- Sexual abuse coerces or attempts to coerce the victim into having sex without the victim’s consent. This includes marital rape, attacking private parts, physical violence that is followed by forcing sex, sexually demeaning the victim, or even telling sexual jokes at the victim’s expense.
- Emotional abuse involves invalidating or deflating the victim’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. I, personally, have experienced emotional abuse. In my opinion, this is sometimes far worse than minor physical abuse. Bruises and such will fade, emotional abuse… not so much. Emotional abuse often takes the form of constant criticism, name-calling, injuring the victim’s relationship with his/her children. parents, or other family members, or interfering with the victim’s abilities.
- Economic abuse takes place when the abuser makes or tries to make the victim financially reliant. Economic abusers often seek to maintain total control over financial resources, withhold the victim’s access to funds, or prohibit the victim from going to school or work.
- Psychological abuse involves the abuser invoking fear through intimidation; threatening to physically hurt himself/herself, the victim, children, the victim’s family or friends, or the pets; Psychological abuse is also considered psychological manipulation (see above). Sometimes the offender will be involved in the destruction of property; injuring the pets; isolating the victim from loved ones; and prohibiting the victim from going to school or work.
- Threats to hit, injure, or use a weapon are also a form of psychological abuse.
- Stalking can include following the victim, spying, watching, harassing, showing up at the victim’s home or work, sending gifts, collecting information, making phone calls, leaving written messages, or appearing at a person’s home or workplace. These acts individually are typically legal, but any of these behaviors done continuously results in a stalking crime.
- Cyberstalking refers to online action or repeated emailing that inflicts substantial emotional distress in the recipient.
Postponement or delay of a sentence to a future date.
The person defending or denying a suit. In Criminal Law, the person charged with the crime.
Testimony of a witness or a party taken under oath outside the courtroom, the transcript of which becomes a part of the court’s file.
Form of discipline of a lawyer resulting in the loss (often permanently) of that lawyer’s right to practice law.
A state agency responsible for investigating complaints about lawyers. If the lawyer is found to have violated an ethics or court rule, he or she will be reprimanded, fined, and perhaps suspended or disbarred (license to practice law revoked). Please note that lawyer discipline agencies cannot help clients recover fees paid to the lawyer, or make the lawyer pay for a loss the client has suffered because the lawyer made mistakes in handling a case.
The making known of a fact that had previously been hidden.
The pre-trial devices that can be used by one party to obtain facts and information about the case from the other party in order to assist the party’s preparation for trial.
The termination of formal charges.
Putting a person on trial more than once for the exact same crime. It is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The concept that laws and legal proceedings must be fair. The Constitution guarantees that the government cannot take away a person’s basic rights to life, liberty or property, without due process of law. Courts have issued numerous rulings about what this means in particular cases.
Due Process Clause
A clause in a constitution prohibiting the government from depriving a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law due process of law. A fundamental principle of fairness in all legal matters, both civil and criminal, especially in the courts. All legal procedures set by statute and court practice, including notice of rights, must be followed for each individual so that no prejudicial or unequal treatment will result. While somewhat indefinite, the term can be gauged by its aim to safeguard both private and public rights against unfairness. The universal guarantee of due process is in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and is applied to all states by the 14th Amendment. From this basic principle flows many legal decisions determining both procedural and substantive rights.
The fraudulent appropriation by a person to his own use or benefit or property or money entrusted to him by another.
Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used by the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case for one side or the other.
French, meaning “on the bench.” All judges of an appellate court sitting together to hear a case, as opposed to the routine disposition by panels of three judges. In the Ninth Circuit, an en banc panel consists of 11 randomly selected judges.
Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case in favor of one side or the other.
Any of various rules that exclude or suppress evidence, specifically a rule of evidence that excludes or suppresses evidence obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights.
Evidence indicating that a defendant did not commit the crime.
Exempts the defendant because of some circumstance. With a valid excuse, the defendant is not responsible for his actions. For example, The Insanity Defense. (See also Justification Defense.)
A document or other item introduced as evidence during a trial or hearing.
A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.
Testimony given in relation to some scientific, technical, or professional matter by experts, i.e., persons qualified to speak authoritatively by reason of their special training, skill, or education.
A witness with a specialized knowledge of a subject who is allowed to discuss an event in court even though he or she was not present. For example, an arson expert could testify about the probable cause of a suspicious fire.
To intentionally destroy, obliterate or strike out records or information in files, computers and other depositories.
The surrender of an accused criminal by one state to the jurisdiction of another.
Person who sees a crime taking place.
Any unlawful physical restraint of another’s personal liberty, whether or not carried out by a peace officer.
Intentionally restraining another person without having the legal right to do so. It’s not necessary that physical force be used; threats or a show of apparent authority are sufficient. False imprisonment is a misdemeanor and a tort (a civil wrong). If the perpetrator confines the victim for a substantial period of time (or moves him a significant distance) in order to commit a felony, the false imprisonment may become a kidnapping.
Federal public defender
An attorney employed by the federal courts on a full-time basis to provide legal defense to defendants who are unable to afford counsel. The judiciary administers the federal defender program pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act.
Federal public defender organization
As provided for in the Criminal Justice Act, an organization established within a federal judicial circuit to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford an adequate defense. Each organization is supervised by a federal public defender appointed by the court of appeals for the circuit.
Federal Rules Of Evidence
Rules which govern the admissibility of evidence at trials in the Federal District Courts and before U.S. Magistrates. Many states have adopted evidence rules patterned on these federal rules.
Federal question jurisdiction
Jurisdiction given to federal courts in cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties.
A felony is a serious criminal offense, usually punishable by a prison term or, in some cases, by death. Felonies are considered more severe than misdemeanors. Murder, extortion and kidnapping are some examples of felonies. Felonies are classified as 1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree or capital felonies.
Formal conclusion by a judge or regulatory agency on issues of fact. Also, a conclusion by a jury regarding a fact.
To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court to enter into the files or records of a case.
A first appearance is held in the jail within 24 hours of your arrest. You will attend this hearing if you have not already been released from jail on bond or your own recognizance. A judge will inform you of the charges against you, review the charging affidavit to determine if the minimal probable cause has been demonstrated to support your detention, discuss the hiring or appointment of an attorney, and should consider your release on bond or your own recognizance. See also Arraignment.
This term refers to methods used to examine firearms, documents, polygraph results, DNA, medical information, accounting and other information, and the use of handwriting experts and other known expert witnesses available to testify to their findings in court.
A body of 16-23 persons with the authority to investigate and accuse, but not to try cases. The grand jury will listen to and review evidence, which is presented by the prosecutors, and determine whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offense. See also indictment and U.S. attorney.
A person appointed by will or by law to assume responsibility for incompetent adults or minor children. If a parent dies, this will usually be the other parent. If both die, it probably will be a close relative.
Guardian ad litem
Latin for guardian at law. The person appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of a child or other person not able to look out for themselves during the course of legal proceedings.
a verdict convicting a criminal defendant of a charge or charges. When a verdict of guilty is returned, the court orders a presentence investigation of the defendant and sets a sentencing date.
Latin, meaning “you have the body.” A writ of habeas corpus generally is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner’s continued confinement. Federal judges receive petitions for a writ of habeas corpus from state prison inmates who say their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights in some way.
This is a legal proceeding (not a trial) held before a judge or administrative body. Evidence and arguments are presented in an effort to resolve a disputed factual or legal issue. Hearings are used by courts and also by legislative and administrative agencies.
Evidence presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. With some exceptions, hearsay generally is not admissible as evidence at trial
A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to remain at home except for certain approved activities such as work and medical appointments. Home confinement may include the use of electronic monitoring equipment – a transmitter attached to the wrist or the ankle – to help ensure that the person stays at home as required.
The killing of one human being by another human being. The term applies to all such killings, criminal and non-criminal. Homicide is considered non-criminal in a number of situations, including deaths as the result of war and putting someone to death by the valid sentence of a court. It may be legally justified or excused, as in cases of self-defense or when someone is killed by another person who is attempting to prevent a violent felony. Criminal homicide occurs when a person purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another. Murder and manslaughter are both examples of criminal homicide.
A jury whose members cannot unanimously agree whether the accused is guilty or innocent.
House arrest (home confinement, home detention, electronic monitoring) is when a person is confined by authorities to his or her residence. House arrest is a lenient alternative to prison time or juvenile-detention time.
Grant by the court, which assures someone will not face prosecution in return for providing criminal evidence.
To impeach a witness is to introduce evidence intended to contradict testimony or to question his credibility.
1. The process of calling a witness’s testimony into doubt. For example, if the attorney can show that the witness may have fabricated portions of his testimony, the witness is said to be “impeached;” 2. The constitutional process whereby the House of Representatives may “impeach” (accuse of misconduct) high officers of the federal government, who are then tried by the Senate.
Latin, meaning in a judge’s chambers. Often means outside the presence of a jury and the public. In private.
Incarceration is when a person is confined to a jail or prison.
The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies. See also information.
Evidence indicating that a defendant did commit the crime.
Needy or impoverished. A defendant in a criminal case who can demonstrate his or her indigence to the court may be assigned a court-appointed attorney at public expense.
A formal accusation by a government attorney that the defendant committed a misdemeanor. See also indictment.
When a defendant in a criminal case comes before a judge shortly after an arrest to determine whether or not there is probable cause for the arrest.
A court order which forbids or requires a party to the case to do some act.
Unsoundness of mind or lack of the ability to understand that prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction.
A set or series of written questions sent to a party, witness, or other person having information or interest in a case; used in the discovery phase of a case.
Questioning, usually by the police of a suspect in custody. The suspect is not obligated to answer the questions, and the fact that he/she has remained silent generally cannot be used by the prosecution to help prove guilt. If the suspect has asked for a lawyer, the police must cease questioning. If they do not, they cannot use the answers against the suspect at trial.
Jails are often run by sheriff and/or local governments are designed to hold individuals awaiting trial or serving short sentences (364 days or less).
An official of the Judicial branch with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts. Used generically, the term judge may also refer to all judicial officers, including Supreme Court justices.
The position of judge. By statute, Congress authorizes the number of judgeships for each district and appellate court.
Judicial Conference of the United States
The policy-making entity for the federal court system. A 27-judge body whose presiding officer is the Chief Justice of the United States.
Judgment / Sentence
The official document of a judge’s disposition (decision) of a case and sentence of a defendant.
The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.
The study of law and the structure of the legal system
The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact. See also grand jury.
A judge’s directions to the jury before it begins deliberations regarding the factual questions it must answer and the legal rules that it must apply.
The acquitting of a defendant by a jury in disregard of the judge’s instruction and contrary to the jury’s findings of fact. Often occurs because the jury is sympathetic towards the defendant or law which the defendant is charged.
A defense that exempts the defendant because their actions were justified. Think Justifiable Homicide, where a defendant could not have been asked to act differently.
A judicial officer of a district court who conducts initial proceedings in criminal cases, decides criminal misdemeanor cases, conducts many pretrial civil and criminal matters on behalf of district judges, and decides civil cases with the consent of the parties.
Evidence which is relevant to the issues in a case.
Miranda Warning / Miranda Rights
By law (Miranda v. Arizona ruling by the United States Supreme Court), anyone being questioned by authorities must first receive a ‘Miranda Warning’. This requirement exists to prevent the police / authorities from taking advantage of a person who does not know or fully understand their rights and thus speaks to the police and answers their questions without an attorney present. The Miranda Warning consists of the authorities explaining certain rights to a person before questioning them. These include: 1) You have the right to remain silent. 2) If you choose to speak, anything you say can be used against you in court. 3) If you decide to answer any questions, you may stop at any time and all questioning must cease. 4) You have a right to consult with your attorney before answering any questions. You have the right to have your attorney present if you decide to answer any questions, and if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you or appointed for you by the court without cost to you before any further questions may be asked.
Mental health treatment
Special conditions the court imposes to require an individual to undergo evaluation and treatment for a mental disorder. Treatment may include psychiatric, psychological, and sex offense-specific evaluations, inpatient or outpatient counseling, and medication. See also M’naghten Test and a separate section on Insanity Plea
A crime, less serious than a felony, and punishable by jail time. Misdemeanors are classified as 1st degree and 2nd degree misdemeanors and are handled in County Court. Petty theft, first-time drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident are some examples of misdemeanor crimes.
A trial which is invalid because of some fundamental errors in procedure, wrongdoing or a hung jury. A judge can set the case for a new trial or retrial at a future date.
A moot case or a moot point is one not subject to a judicial determination because it involves an abstract question or a pretended controversy that has not yet actually arisen or has already passed. Mootness usually refers to a court’s refusal to consider a case because the issue involved has been resolved prior to the court’s decision, leaving nothing that would be affected by the court’s decision.
A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.
Motion in Limine
A pretrial motion requesting the court to prohibit the other side from presenting, or even referring to, evidence on matters said to be so highly prejudicial that no steps taken by the judge can prevent the jury from being unduly influenced.
Motion to dismiss
In a civil case, a request to a judge by the defendant, asserting that even if all the allegations are true, the plaintiff is not entitled to any legal relief and thus the case should be dismissed. In a criminal case, it is usually asked prior to the Defendant starting their case.
Motive is defined as a reason for doing something. An example of a motive is the reason for committing a crime.
M’naghten Test, after Daniel M’Naghten, defendant in 1843 murder case heard before the British House of Lords who was acquitted due to his insanity. The rules so formulated as M’Naghten’s Case 1843 10 C & F 200 have been a standard test for criminal liability in relation to mentally disordered defendants in common law jurisdictions ever since, with some minor adjustments. When the tests set out by the Rules are satisfied, the accused may be adjudged “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but insane” and the sentence may be a mandatory or discretionary (but usually indeterminate) period of treatment in a secure hospital facility, or otherwise at the discretion of the court (depending on the country and the offense charged) instead of punitive disposal.
The insanity defense is recognized in Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Hong Kong, India, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and most U.S. states with the exception of Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Utah, and Vermont but not all of these jurisdictions still use the M’Naghten Rules. States that disallow the insanity defense still allow defendants to demonstrate that they are not capable of forming the intent to commit a crime as a result of mental illness. See also a separate section on Insanity Plea and Mental Health Treatment.
New Latin, literally, guilty mind. A culpable mental state especially one involving intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused. Example: “a mistaken belief in consent meant that the defendant lacked mens rea”
A crime that carries a less severe punishment than a felony. Specifically a crime punishable by a fine and by a term of imprisonment not to be served in a penitentiary and not to exceed one year.
Murder[partly from Old English morthor; partly from Old French murdre, of Germanic origin] : the crime of unlawfully and unjustifiably killing another under circumstances defined by statute. See separate section on Murder and Degrees.
A defendant neither admits nor denies the charges, letting them stand as is.
No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.
Nolle Prosse / Nolle Prosequi
When an indictment, information, or other charging document, if filed or issued in the case, is dismissed or nolle prosequi by the state attorney or statewide prosecutor, or was dismissed by a court of competent jurisdiction, and that none of the charges related to the arrest or alleged criminal activity to which the petition to expunge pertains resulted in a trial, without regard to whether the outcome of the trial was other than an adjudication of guilt.
Notice of Appearance
Should you retain an attorney, he will file a Notice of Appearance with the court on your behalf. This document informs the judge, the prosecutor and the clerk’s office that your attorney represents you.
No Probable Cause
Insufficient grounds to hold the person who was arrested.
The process by which one party takes exception to some statement or procedure. An objection is either sustained (allowed) or overruled by the judge.
A solemn pledge made under a sense of responsibility.
A judge’s written explanation of the decision of the court. Because a case may be heard by three or more judges in the court of appeals, the opinion in appellate decisions can take several forms. If all the judges completely agree on the result, one judge will write the opinion for all. If all the judges do not agree, the formal decision will be based upon the view of the majority, and one member of the majority will write the opinion. The judges who did not agree with the majority may write separately in dissenting or concurring opinions to present their views. A dissenting opinion disagrees with the majority opinion because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law the majority used to decide the case. A concurring opinion agrees with the decision of the majority opinion, but offers further comment or clarification or even an entirely different reason for reaching the same result. Only the majority opinion can serve as binding precedent in future cases. See also precedent.
An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges’ questions.
Own Recognizance (OR) / Personal Recognizance
In some cases (less serious crimes) this allows the defendant to get out of jail, without paying bail, by promising to appear in court when next required to be there. Only those with strong ties to the community (steady job, local family, and no history of failing to appear in court) are candidates for “OR” release.
In appellate cases, a group of judges (usually three) assigned to decide the case. In the case of jury selection process, the group of potential jurors; or The list of attorneys who are both available and qualified to serve as court-appointed counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford their own counsel.
Parole or controlled release from a correctional facility of a prisoner who has served part of the term/sentence to which he or she was sentenced.
The release of a prison inmate – granted by the U.S. Parole Commission – after the inmate has completed part of his or her sentence in a federal prison. When the parolee is released to the community, he or she is placed under the supervision of a U.S. probation officer.
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished parole in favor of a determinate sentencing system in which the sentence is set by sentencing guidelines. Now, without the option of parole, the term of imprisonment the court imposes is the actual time the person spends in prison.
A person, usually with special training but who has not earned a law degree, who works under the supervision of a lawyer. Also called a legal assistant.
Latin, meaning “for the court.” In appellate courts, often refers to an unsigned opinion.
A district court may grant each side in a civil or criminal trial the right to exclude a certain number of prospective jurors without cause or giving a reason.
In some states or types of cases, the person filing a lawsuit or action in a court. Also, the person who appeals to the judgment of a lower court.
Petit jury (or trial jury)
A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons. Federal civil juries consist of at least six persons.
A federal misdemeanor punishable by six months or less in prison. See also Misdemeanor.
A person who brings a lawsuit or action; the party who complains or sues in a civil action.
The first pleading by a criminal defendant, the defendant’s statement that he or she is guilty or not guilty. The defendant’s answer to the charges made in the indictment or information. A plea can be guilty, not guilty, or where permitted nolo contendere.
Plea Bargain / Negotiations
A negotiation between the defense and prosecution for a fair disposition of the case and must be approved by the court.
Written statements filed with the court that describe a party’s legal or factual assertions about the case.
A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally “follow precedent” – meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case.
Also, called a preliminary examination. Legal proceeding used in some states in which a prosecutor presents evidence to a judge in an attempt to show that there is probable cause that a person committed a crime. If the judge is convinced probable cause exists to charge the person, then the prosecution proceeds to the next phase. If not, the charges are dropped.
A report prepared by a court’s probation officer, after a person has been convicted of an offense, summarizing for the court the background information needed to determine the appropriate sentence.
A meeting of the judge and lawyers to plan the trial, to discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, to review proposed evidence and witnesses, and to set a trial schedule. Typically, the judge and the parties also discuss the possibility of settlement of the case.
Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI)
Supervised pretrial intervention programs for persons charged with a crime, before or after any information has been filed or an indictment has been returned in the circuit court. Such programs shall provide appropriate counseling, education, supervision, and medical and psychological treatment as available and when appropriate for the persons released to such programs. Any first offender, or any person previously convicted of not more than one nonviolent misdemeanor, who is charged with any misdemeanor or felony of the third degree is eligible for release to the pretrial intervention program on the approval of the administrator of the program and the consent of the victim, the state attorney, and the judge who presided at the initial appearance hearing of the offender. However, the defendant may not be released to the pretrial intervention program unless, after consultation with his or her attorney, he or she has voluntarily agreed to such program and has knowingly and intelligently waived his or her right to a speedy trial for the period of his or her diversion.
A function of the federal courts that takes place at the very start of the criminal justice process – after a person has been arrested and charged with a federal crime and before he or she goes to trial. Pretrial services officers focus on investigating the backgrounds of these persons to help the court determine whether to release or detain them while they await trial. The decision is based on whether these individuals are likely to flee or pose a threat to the community. If the court orders release, a pretrial services officer supervises the person in the community until he or she returns to court.
Prisons are operated by state governments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and are designed to hold individuals convicted of crimes.
Work done by a lawyer without compensation, for the public good: a lawyer’s pro bono work.
A slang expression sometimes used to refer to a pro se litigant. It is a corruption of the Latin phrase “in propria persona.”
(pronounced pro say) A Latin phrase that means for himself. A person who represents himself in court alone without the help of a lawyer is said to appear pro se. Representing oneself. Serving as one’s own lawyer.
Sentencing option in the federal courts. With probation, instead of sending an individual to prison, the court releases the person to the community and orders him or her to complete a period of supervision monitored by a U.S. probation officer and to abide by certain conditions. 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.
Officers of the probation office of a court. Probation officer duties include conducting presentence investigations, preparing presentence reports on convicted defendants, and supervising released defendants.
Meaning of or relating to procedure [sentence reversed as a result of an error in sentencing “National Law Journal”] compare substantive
Meaning the act or process of prosecuting the institution and carrying on of a criminal action involving the process of seeking formal charges against a person and pursuing those charges to final
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.
A lawyer usually holding public office who represents criminal defendants unable to pay for legal assistance. A court appointed attorney for those defendants declared indigent (unable to hire private counsel).
A doubt about the guilt of a criminal defendant that arises or remains upon fair and thorough consideration of the evidence or lack thereof [all persons are presumed to be innocent and no …
An objectively justifiable suspicion that is based on specific facts or circumstances and that justifies stopping and sometimes searching (as by frisking) a person thought to be involved in …
relapse into criminal behavior
A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.
The act of a court setting aside the decision of a lower court. A reversal is often accompanied by a remand to the lower court for further proceedings.
Generally, in a criminal case, 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.
The response by a party to charges raised in a pleading by the other party.
The person against whom an appeal is taken.
A term sometimes used to describe the fee which the client pays when he or she retains the attorney to act for them.
Rico (Racketeer Influenced And Corrupt Organization Act)
A federal (or state) law designed to investigate, control and prosecute organized crime, and to combat the infiltration of organized crime into a legitimate business
Rules of Evidence
Standards governing whether evidence in a civil or criminal case is admissible.
A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.
Search And Seizure
The body of law that covers the issues of examining a person’s property with the intention of finding evidence not in plain view (search) and taking possession of that property against the will of …
An order signed by a judge for probable cause that directs owners of private property to allow the police to enter and search for items named in the warrant. In limited situations the police may search without a warrant, but they cannot use what they find at trial if the defense can show that there was no probable cause for the search.
The making of statements that might expose you to criminal prosecution, either now or in the future. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from forcing you to provide evidence (answering questions) that would or might lead to your prosecution for a crime.
A federal judge who, after attaining the requisite age and length of judicial experience, takes senior status, thus creating a vacancy among a court’s active judges. A senior judge retains the judicial office and may cut back his or her workload by as much as 75 percent, but many opt to keep a larger caseload.
The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.
A set of rules and principles established by the United States Sentencing Commission that trial judges use to determine the sentence for a convicted defendant.
To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.
Service of process
The delivery of writs or summonses to the appropriate party.
a trial conducted according to prevailing rules and procedures that takes place without unreasonable or undue delay or within a statutory period NOTE: The right to a speedy trial is guaranteed to …
Stalking is considered similar to domestic violence. It is defined as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.” 1
Behaviors usually include:
- Following or lying in wait for the victim
- Damaging or threatening to damage victim’s property
- Defaming the victim’s character
- Persistent patterns of leaving or sending unwanted items or presents ranging from romantic to weird
- Harassing the victim via the internet by posting personal information or spreading rumors about the victim
Cyberstalking—the use of technology to stalk victims—shares some characteristics with real-life stalking. Usually involves:
- Harassment or contact of others initially via the internet and email
- Intensities in chat rooms where stalkers flood their target’s inbox with obscene, hateful, or threatening messages and images
- May assume the identity of his or her victim by posting information, either fictitious or real, and asking for responses from the cybercommunity.
- May. use information acquired online to further intimidate, harass, and threaten victim via snail mail, phone calls, and physically appearing at home and work
Standard of Proof
Indicates the degree to which the point must be proven. In a civil case, the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff, who must establish his or her case by such standards of proof as a “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence.” In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The majority of civil lawsuits require proof “by a preponderance of the evidence” (50 percent plus), but in some the standard is higher and requires “clear and convincing” proof.
A law passed by a legislature.
Statute of limitations
The time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begun. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of civil case or the crime charged. A statute which limits the right of a plaintiff to file an action unless it is done within a specified time period after the occurrence which gives rise to the right to sue.
An agreement between the parties involved in a suit, agreeing that a certain fact or law will be assumed to be true or relevant.
Latin, meaning “of its own will.” Often refers to a court taking an action in a case without being asked to do so by either side.
The act or process by which a person’s rights or claims are ranked below those of others.
A command, issued under a court’s authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.
Subpoena duces tecum
A command to a witness to appear and produce documents.
of or relating to a matter of substance as opposed to form or procedure [a issue] [the instructions to the jury] [was dismissed on procedural and grounds] compare procedural 2 :
To forbid the use of evidence at a trial because it is improper or was improperly obtained.
Temporary restraining order
Temporary restraining order – An emergency but temporary order by a court used when immediate or irreparable damages or loss might result. Akin to a preliminary injunction, it is a judge’s short-term order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted. Often referred to as a TRO.
Testimony[Latin testimonium, from testis witness] : evidence furnished by a witness under oath or affirmation and either orally or in an affidavit or deposition former testimony. It does not include evidence from documents and other physical evidence.
See statute of limitations.
A trial is where a judge presides over the courtroom proceedings and decides the questions of the law, and a six-person jury or a twelve-person jury of your peers (depending on case type) will hear the evidence presented and must unanimously determine whether you are guilty or not guilty of the crime(s) charged.
Any person who knowingly sells, purchases, manufactures, delivers, or brings into this state, or who is knowingly in actual or constructive possession of illegal drugs (ex, cannabis, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, etc.). See also RICO
A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial or during some other formal conversation, such as a hearing or oral deposition
A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute and defend cases for the federal government. The U.S. Attorney employs a staff of Assistant U.S. Attorneys who appear as the government’s attorneys in individual cases.
The appellate court agrees with the lower court decision and allows it to stand. See affirmed.
Authority of a court to hear a matter based on geographical location. A change of venue is a change or transfer of a case from one judicial district to another.
The decision of a trial jury or a judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case. A conclusion, as to fact or law, that forms the basis for the court’s judgment.
The process by which judges and lawyers select a petit jury from among those eligible to serve, by questioning them to determine knowledge of the facts of the case and a willingness to decide the case only on the evidence presented in court. Jury selection process of questioning prospective jurors, to ascertain their qualifications and determine any basis for challenge.
Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.
A person who testifies in court and swears to give truthful evidence about what he has seen, heard, or otherwise observed.
Words and Phrases Legally Defined
A set of books in dictionary form which lists judicial determinations of a word or phrase. Black’s Law Dictionary is an example.
A judicial order directing a person to do something, to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.
Writ of certiorari
An order issued by the Supreme Court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case for which it will hear on appeal.
Black’s Law Dictionary, 11th Edition (BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (STANDARD EDITION))
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, Newest Edition, Trade Paperback
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All photos, images, quotes, and video clips are used for fair use commentary, criticism, and educational purposes. See Hosseinzadeh v. Klein, 276 F.Supp.3d 34 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) Equals Three, LLC v. Jukin Media, Inc., 139 F. Supp. 3d 1094 (C.D. Cal. 2015).Sources:
- Tjaden, Patricia and Nancy Thoennes. Stalking in America: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 1998, NCJ 169592.U.S[↩]