Legal Terms and Definitions

Legal Terms and Definitions

abet
v. to help someone commit a crime, including helping them escape from police or plan the crime.

abscond
v. 1) traditionally to leave a jurisdiction (where the court, a process server or law enforcement can find one) to avoid being served with legal papers or being arrested. 2) a surprise leaving with funds or goods that have been stolen, as in "he absconded with the loot."

accessory
n. a second-string player who helps in the commission of a crime by driving the getaway car, providing the weapons, assisting in the planning, providing an alibi, or hiding the principal offender after the crime. Usually the accessory is not immediately present during the crime, but must be aware that the crime is going to be committed or has been committed. Usually an accessory's punishment is less than that of the main perpetrator, but a tough jury or judge may find the accessory just as responsible.

accomplice

n. someone who assists in the commission of a crime and, unlike a mere accessory, is usually present or directly aids in the crime (like holding a gun on the bank guard while the vault is looted, or holding a victim of assault and battery). Also unlike an accessory who can claim being only a subordinate figure, the accomplice may share in the same charge and punishment as the principal criminal.

accusation
n. 1) in legal terms accusation means officially charging someone with a crime either by indictment by a Grand Jury or filing charges by a District Attorney. 2) in lay terms any claim of wrongdoing by another person.

accused

n. a person charged with a crime.

acquit
v. what a jury or judge sitting without a jury does at the end of a criminal trial if the jury or judge finds the accused defendant not guilty.

acquittal
n. what an accused criminal defendant receives if he/she is found not guilty. It is a verdict (a judgment in a criminal case) of not guilty.

adjudication
n. the act of giving a judicial ruling such as a judgment or decree.

admission
n. a statement made by a party to a lawsuit or a criminal defendant, usually prior to trial, that certain facts are true. An admission is not to be confused with a confession of blame or guilt, but admits only some facts. In civil cases, each party is permitted to submit a written list of alleged facts and request the other party to admit or deny whether each is true or correct. Failure to respond in writing is an admission of the alleged facts and may be used in trial.

affidavit
n. 1) any written document in which the signer swears under oath before a notary public or someone authorized to take oaths (like a County Clerk), that the statements in the document are true. 2) in many states a declaration under penalty of perjury, which does not require the oath-taking before a notary, is the equivalent of an affidavit.

aggravated assault
n. the crime of physically attacking another person which results in serious bodily harm and/or is made with a deadly or dangerous weapon such as a gun, knife, sword, ax or blunt instrument. Aggravated assault is usually a felony punishable by a term in state prison.

alias
n. 1) a name used other than the given name of a person or reference to that other name, which may not be an attempt to hide his/her identity (such as Harry for Harold, initials or a maiden name).

alibi
n. an excuse used by a person accused or suspected of a crime. In the original Latin it means "in another place," which has to be the ultimate alibi.

allegation
n. a statement of claimed fact contained in a complaint (a written pleading filed to begin a lawsuit), a criminal charge, or an affirmative defense (part of the written answer to a complaint). Until each statement is proved it is only an allegation. Some allegations are made "on information and belief" if the person making the statement is not sure of a fact.

appeal

1) v. to ask a higher court to reverse the decision of a trial court after final judgment or other legal ruling. After the lower court judgment is entered into the record, the losing party (appellant) must file a notice of appeal, request transcripts or other records of the trial court (or agree with the other party on an "agreed-upon statement"), file briefs with the appeals court citing legal reasons for over-turning the ruling, and show how those reasons (usually other appeal decisions called "precedents") relate to the facts in the case. No new evidence is admitted on appeal, for it is strictly a legal argument. The other party (Respondent or appellee) usually files a responsive brief countering these arguments.

2) 2) n. the name for the process of appealing, as in "he has filed an appeal."

arraignment
n. the hearing in which a person charged with a crime is arraigned in his or her first appearance before a judge. This is the initial appearance of a criminal defendant (unless continued from an earlier time) in which all the preliminaries are taken care of.

arrest
v. 1) to take or hold a suspected criminal with legal authority, as by a law enforcement officer. An arrest may be made legally based on a warrant issued by a court after receiving a sworn statement of probable cause to believe there has been a crime committed by this person, for an apparent crime committed in the presence of the arresting officer, or upon probable cause to believe a crime has been committed by that person.

arson
n. the felony crime of intentionally burning a house or other building. The perpetrators range from mentally ill pyromaniacs to store owners hoping to get insurance proceeds. Historically, arson meant just the burning of a house, but now covers any structure. A death resulting from arson is murder.

assault
v. the threat or attempt to strike another, whether successful or not, provided the target is aware of the danger. The assaulter must be reasonably capable of carrying through the attack.

bail
1) n. the money or bond put up to secure the release of a person who has been charged with a crime. For minor crimes bail is usually set by a schedule which will show the amount to be paid before any court appearance (arraignment). For more serious crimes the amount of bail is set by the judge at the suspect's first court appearance. The theory is that bail guarantees the appearance of the defendant in court when required. 2) v. to post money or bond to secure an accused defendant's release. This is generally called "bailing out" a prisoner.

bail bondsman
n. a professional agent for an insurance company who specializes in providing bail bonds for people charged with crimes and awaiting trial in order to have them released. The offices of a bail bondsman (or woman) are usually found close to the local courthouse and jail, his/her advertising is found in the yellow pages, and some make "house calls" to the jail or hand out cards in court. Bail bondsmen usually charge the suspect a fee of 10 percent of the amount of the bond. If a bail bondsman has reason to believe a person he bailed out is about to flee, he may revoke the bond and surrender his client to jail.

bailiff
n. 1) a court official, usually a deputy sheriff, who keeps order in the courtroom and handles various errands for the judge and clerk. 2) in some jurisdictions, a person appointed by the court to handle the affairs of an incompetent person or to be a "keeper" of goods or money pending further order of the court. "Bailiff" has its origin in Old French and Middle English for custodian, and in the Middle Ages was a significant position in the English court system. The word "bailiwick" originally meant the jurisdictional territory of a bailiff.

battery
n. the actual intentional striking of someone, with intent to harm, or in a "rude and insolent manner" even if the injury is slight. Negligent or careless unintentional contact is not battery no matter how great the harm. Battery is a crime and also the basis for a lawsuit as a civil wrong if there is damage. It is often coupled with "assault" (which does not require actual touching) in "assault and battery."

bench warrant
n. a warrant issued by a judge, often to command someone to appear before the judge, with a setting of an amount of bail to be posted. Often a bench warrant is used in lesser matters to encourage the party to appear in court.

burglary
n. the crime of breaking and entering into a structure for the purpose of committing a crime. No great force is needed (pushing open a door or slipping through an open window is sufficient) if the entry is unauthorized. Contrary to common belief, a burglary is not necessarily for theft. It can apply to any crime, such as assault or sexual harassment, whether the intended criminal act is committed or not.

calendar call

n. the hearing at which a case is set for trial.

citation

n. a notice to appear in court due to the probable commission of a minor crime such as a traffic violation, drinking liquor in a park where prohibited, letting a dog loose without a leash, and in some states for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Failure to appear can result in a warrant for the citee's arrest

confession
n. the statement of one charged with a crime that he/she committed the crime. Such an admission is generally put in writing (by the confessor, law enforcement officers or their stenographer) and then read and signed by the defendant. If the defendant cannot read English, he/she has the right to have his/her confession read aloud or translated. It can be used against the defendant in trial (and his/her codefendants) if it is truly voluntary.

conspiracy
n. when people work together by agreement to commit an illegal act.

continuance
n. a postponement of a date of a trial, hearing or other court appearance to a later fixed date by order of the court, or upon a stipulation (legal agreement) by the attorneys and approved by the court or (where local rules permit) by the clerk of the court.

corpus delicti
n. (corpus dee-lick-tie) Latin for the substantial fact that a crime has been committed, and in popular crime jargon, the body of the murder victim.

deposition

n. the taking and recording of testimony of a witness under oath before a court reporter in a place away from the courtroom before trial.

disposition

n. the court's final determination of a lawsuit or criminal charge.

diversion
n. in criminal procedure, a system for giving a chance for a first- time criminal defendant in lesser crimes to perform community service, make restitution for damage due to the crime, obtain treatment for alcohol or drug problems and/or counseling for antisocial or mentally unstable conduct. If the defendant cooperates and the diversion results in progress, the charges eventually may be dismissed.

docket
1) n. the cases on a court calendar. 2) n. brief notes, usually written by the court clerk, stating what action was taken that day in court. 3) v. to write down the name of a case to be put on calendar or make notes on action in court.

entrapment
n. in criminal law, the act of law enforcement officers or government agents inducing or encouraging a person to commit a crime when the potential criminal expresses a desire not to go ahead.

esquire
n. a form of address showing that someone is an attorney, usually written Albert Pettifog, Esquire, or simply Esq. Originally in England an Esquire was a rank just above "gentleman" and below "knight." It became a title for barristers, sheriffs and judges.

felon
n. a person who has been convicted of a felony, which is a crime punishable by death or a term in state or federal prison.

felony
n. 1) a crime sufficiently serious to be punishable by death or a term in state or federal prison, as distinguished from a misdemeanor which is only punishable by confinement to county or local jail and/or a fine. 2) a crime carrying a minimum term of one year or more in state prison, since a year or less can be served in county jail.

fruit of the poisonous tree
n. in criminal law, the doctrine that evidence discovered due to information found through illegal search or other unconstitutional means (such as a forced confession) may not be introduced by a prosecutor.

fugitive from justice
n. a person convicted or accused of a crime who hides from law enforcement in the state or flees across state lines to avoid arrest or punishment.

hearsay
n. second-hand evidence in which the witness is not telling what he/she knows personally, but what others have said to him/her.

hit and run
n. the crime of a driver of a vehicle who is involved in a collision with another vehicle, property or human being, who knowingly fails to stop to give his/her name, license number and other information as required by statute to the injured party, a witness or law enforcement officers.

in absentia

(in ab-sensh-ee-ah) adj. or adv. phrase. Latin for "in absence," or more fully, in one's absence

incriminate
v. to make a statement in which one admits that he/she has committed a crime or gives information that another named person has committed a crime.

indictment
n. a charge of a felony (serious crime) voted by a Grand Jury based upon a proposed charge, witnesses' testimony and other evidence presented by the public prosecutor (State Attorney, Prosecutor, D.A.).

information
n. an accusation or criminal charge brought by the public prosecutor (State Attorney) without a Grand Jury indictment.

innocent
adj. without guilt (not guilty).

JD
n. short for Juris Doctor, identifying the holder as having received that law degree.

jurisdiction
n. the authority given by law to a court to try cases and rule on legal matters within a particular geographic area and/or over certain types of legal cases.

juvenile delinquent
n. a person who is under age below 18), who is found to have committed a crimet.

larceny
n. the crime of taking the goods of another person without permission (usually secretly), with the intent of keeping them.

magistrate
n. 1) a generic term for any judge of a court, or anyone officially performing a judge's functions. 2) in a few states, an officer of the court at the lowest level who hears small claims lawsuits, serves as a judge for charges of minor crimes and/or conducts preliminary hearings in criminal cases to determine if there is enough evidence presented by the prosecution to hold the accused for trial.

Miranda warning
n. the requirement, also called the Miranda rule, set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) that prior to the time of arrest AND any interrogation of a person suspected of a crime, he/she must be told that he/she has: the right to remain silent, the right to legal counsel, and the right to be told that anything he/she says can be used in court against him/her.

misdemeanor
n. a lesser crime punishable by a fine and/or county jail time for up to one year. Misdemeanors are distinguished from felonies, which can be punished by a state prison term.

motion to suppress
n. a motion (usually on behalf of a criminal defendant) to disallow certain evidence in an upcoming trial.

no contest
n. in criminal law, a defendant's plea in court that he/she will not contest the charge of a particular crime, also called nolo contendere. While technically not an admission of guilt for commission of the crime, the judge will treat a plea of "no contest" as such an admission and proceed to find the defendant guilty as charged.

nolle prosequi
(no-lay pro-say-kwee) n. Latin for "we shall no longer prosecute," which is a declaration made to the judge by a prosecutor in a criminal case (or by a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit) either before or during trial, meaning the case against the defendant is being dropped.

nolo contendere

(no-low kahn-ten-durr-ray) n. Latin for "I will not contest" the charges, which is a plea made by a defendant to a criminal charge, allowing the judge to then find him/her guilty, often called a "plea of no contest."

own recognizance
(O.R.) n. the basis for a judge allowing a person accused of a crime to be free while awaiting trial, without posting bail, on the defendant's own promise to appear and his/her reputation.

plain view doctrine
n. the rule that a law enforcement officer may make a search and seizure without obtaining a search warrant if evidence of criminal activity or the product of a crime can be seen without entry or search.

plea
n. 1) in criminal law, the response by an accused defendant to each charge of the commission of a crime.

prima facie
: (pry-mah fay-shah) adj. Latin for "at first look," or "on its face," referring to a lawsuit or criminal prosecution in which the evidence before trial is sufficient to prove the case unless there is substantial contradictory evidence presented at trial.

probable cause
n. sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime.

prosecutor
n. generic term for the government's attorney in a criminal case, including District Attorney, States Attorney, U.S. Attorney, Attorney General, Solicitor General, or special prosecutor.

quash
v. to annul or set aside. In law, a motion to quash asks the judge for an order setting aside or nullifying an action, such as "quashing" service of a summons when the wrong person was served.

reasonable doubt
n. not being sure of a criminal defendant's guilt to a moral certainty.

restitution
n. 1) returning to the proper owner property or the monetary value of loss.. 2) in criminal cases, one of the penalties imposed is requiring return of stolen goods to the victim or payment to the victim for harm caused. Restitution may be a condition of granting a defendant probation or giving him/her a shorter sentence than normal.

restraining order
n. a temporary order of a court to keep conditions as they are (like not taking a child out of the county or not selling marital property) until there can be a hearing in which both parties are present.

retainer
n. the advance payment to an attorney for services to be performed, intended to insure that the lawyer will represent the client and that the lawyer will be paid at least that amount.

sealing of records
n. trial records and decisions which a judge orders kept secret.

search and seizure
n. examination of a person's premises (residence, business or vehicle) by law enforcement officers looking for evidence of the commission of a crime, and the taking (seizure and removal) of articles of evidence.

self-incrimination
n. making statements or producing evidence which tends to prove that one is guilty of a crime.

sidebar
n. physically, an area in front of or next to the judge's bench (the raised desk in front of the judge) away from the witness stand and the jury box, where lawyers are called to speak confidentially with the judge out of earshot of the jury.

solicitation

n. the crime of encouraging or inducing another to commit a crime or join in the commission of a crime. Solicitation may refer to a prostitute's (or her pimp's) offer of sexual acts for pay.

taking the Fifth
n. the refusal to testify on the ground that the testimony might tend to incriminate the witness in a crime, based on the Fifth Amendment .

vacate
v. for a judge to set aside or annul an order or judgment which he/she finds was improper.

warrant
n. an order (writ) of a court which directs a law enforcement officer (usually a sheriff) to arrest and bring a person before the judge, such as a person who is charged with a crime, convicted of a crime but failed to appear for sentencing, owes a fine or is in contempt of court. A "bench warrant" is an order to appear issued by the court when a person does not appear for a hearing.

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